Farms seeing a bumper crop of weddings, but not without their hitches

When Kendall Dietterich and her six siblings were growing up on Freeman School Farm in Schwenksville, Pa., the whole family would pitch in, cutting and baling 50 acres’ worth of hay each June.

But now, it’s just Dietterich and her husband caring for the fields, horses and goats, plus two children, ages 8 months and 2 years. The farm has been losing money, so a few years ago, her siblings began pushing her to sell.

Dietterich offered an alternative: Turn the farm into a part-time wedding venue.

Since September 2013, she has hosted seven weddings, providing precious income for her family. But she’s had to stop booking for now because of zoning issues in Lower Salford Township that halted weddings on a nearby farm.

“It’s a huge issue and an obstacle,” Dietterich said. “This is something that a lot of farms are trying to use to bring in more money and stay in operation, instead of being turned into developments. It’s a way of trying to preserve the land and the history.”

As the farm-wedding trend reaches new heights (see a recent Onion headline: “Farmer Chases Fifth Wedding Party Out of Barn This Month”), more local farmers are seizing the opportunity to diversify their revenue and promote their businesses.

But rustic, it turns out, isn’t always simple: There have been run-ins with wary municipal officials, complaints from neighbors, and push-back from farm-preservation advocates concerned about agritourism replacing actual agriculture.

Those clashes aren’t surprising to Susie Kuser of Fernbrook Farms in Bordentown, Pa., which has been hosting farm weddings for 21 years, complete with hayrides, photo ops with farm animals, an outdoor hearth for making s’mores, and a resident chef who cooks with produce from Fernbrook’s fields.

She’s been fielding more and more phone calls over the last few years from farmers seeking advice on hosting weddings — though many, she said, are surprised by how much work is involved.

“A lot of farms are starting to do this. The only problem is a lot of farmers aren’t getting permits and a lot of townships don’t like that, because there are issues with the noise and the traffic,” she said.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, couples can now choose from dairy farms, blueberry farms, orchards, and horse farms, offering anything from full-service event planning to DIY affairs.

The owners of Johnson’s Corner Farm in Cherry Hill, N.J., recently opened a second property, Johnson’s Locust Hall Farm in Jobstown, Burlington County, with plans for weddings in the 17th-century stone bank barn or perhaps out in the pumpkin patch.

In Dallastown, Pa., Wyndridge Farm just finished restoring a barn for weddings; it’s already booked into 2016.

“We’re trying to make this an agricultural destination,” said owner Steve Groff, who is also making craft cider and beer there. “It just so happens that this rustic-elegance, farm-wedding concept has become very popular. The timing is just right for us.”

For couples like Christine and Chris Brooks of Feasterville, Pa., a farm wedding represents the antidote to cookie-cutter affairs.

“I wanted to be able to make it my own,” Christine said of her wedding in September 2013 at Freeman School Farm. Having grown up with a love of all things country, seeing the farm-wedding aesthetic taking over Pinterest made her want to get hitched amid the sights, smells, and sounds of an authentic working farm — mud and all.

“I enjoy looking at my dress now and seeing the grass stains on the inside, and remembering that that day was amazing, the weather was great, and it was everything that we wanted it to be, which is farm, country, vintage,” she said.

Harmless as it sounds, this impulse has fueled contention and even court battles.

In New Jersey, legislation over the summer created a pilot program allowing weddings on preserved vineyard lands, following several years of conflict between vintners and municipalities. Willow Creek Winery is currently suing the borough of West Cape May in federal court.

“West Cape May was doing everything they can to not let us open, to delay our opening, and still to this day try every which way to hinder our business,” said Willow Creek’s winemaker, Kevin Celli.

Yet he said there’s been ongoing interest in weddings in the tasting room, where events include a winery tour and $2,000 of the $3,500 event fee goes toward purchasing wine for the reception and splits of cabernet sauvignon to give as favors.

Celli said he still runs a winery, not a wedding venue. Event fees represent 5 percent of his income. But they’re important to promote the business.

“Our focus is getting people to our farm, getting them to try our wine, and getting them to leave with our wine,” he said.

Likewise, Anthony DiMeo III, who began offering weddings at DiMeo Farms this June, expects the events will only boost traffic to his pick-your-own blueberry fields.

“When people come here and they have a great time, and they’re all dressed up for the wedding, and the girls are taking off their shoes and running through the field picking blueberries, it’s such an original experience. They remember it and they want to come back,” he said.

He thinks couples on lean budgets will be drawn to the offering, though many discover that farm weddings aren’t necessarily cheap.

Anthony Penza of Hammonton, N.J., found, after renting tents, tables, chairs, and even a portable restroom, that his wedding at DiMeo Farm cost between $20,000 and $25,000. He said that offering guests a unique experience (and a blueberry bush to take home) was worth it.

Nor are true do-it-yourself farm weddings easy to pull off. Olivia and Greg Fisher got their dream wedding at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., but it was an all-consuming project, she said. “Having done it, I probably wouldn’t do it like that again, because it was so much work. You start from scratch, and work from the ground up.”

Farmers say the trend makes for more than just pretty wedding pictures; it’s also helping sustain an industry that’s lost 100,000 farms nationwide in the last five years.

For example, Jayne Shord’s Beech Springs Farm in Orrtanna, Pa., started hosting weddings in June 2013 and now relies on the weekly events for about half of its income. Shord, who also grows heirloom vegetables, said some neighbors have complained, though she abides by a 9:30 p.m. curfew for music (allowing guests to stay later and share quiet time around a bonfire).

Kristi Maher, who owns Blue Hound Farm in Lewisberry, Pa., said the events are a vital income source for her and her husband, “city slickers” who keep animals to greet visiting school groups but have been unsuccessful at growing crops or hay.

The wedding business, on the other hand, has grown nicely: Brides can choose to use the 200-year-old stone barn, the edge of the lake, or even the stables for their events.

“We’re not for everyone. There’s manure and hay, and there’s a lot of things that go with animals,” she said. “You have to like that rustic, primal approach. We have chickens that are free-range. We had a pig walk down the aisle with a bride once. Some people want the appearance of a farm but not really a farm. We get that, but they don’t come here.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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