Robert Pollock started hosting weddings at his Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa as a fluke. He bought a 1764 house on about 100 acres in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City, and one of the guys he hired to do work on the property needed a place for a wedding, so Pollock agreed.
"Of course it poured rain but we got through it," he recalled.
Pollock accidentally became part of a trend — couples planning weddings with locally sourced menus and taking place at farms.
In Chicago, Paul Larson is a farm-to-table chef in the truest sense; he's both executive chef at Blue Plate caterers and owner of a farm in Cassopolis, Mich., where he grows microgreens and heirloom tomatoes.
"When I moved out to Michigan, they all laughed at me because I was a city boy wanting to be a farmer," Larson said. Now, with the growing popularity of locavore dining, he finds it an advantage to offer catering clients produce he's grown, or the meat and dairy of his neighbors.
Because wedding clients tend to book far in advance, Larson can order seeds and grow an item to order. He grew butternut squash and leeks specifically for one menu last year, for example.
Larson estimates that most of the couples booking Blue Plate for weddings are interested in food issues on some level, from dabblers to those serious about sourcing the entire meal from small farms within a 100-mile radius, donating leftovers, recycling wine corks and the like.
Blue Plate tries to accommodate couples wherever they are on that spectrum, Larson said. That means communicating clearly about a couple's priorities and about what's in season, and accepting the need to adapt if a particular item comes in early or late.
Jane Eckert, who consults with farms on tourism as owner of Eckert AgriMarketing, in St. Louis, Mo., has seen an increase in farms wanting to host weddings but says "it's the brides who are driving it."
"Brides are looking for unique destinations and farmers are looking for ways to supplement their income," she said.
Weddings are still a niche business for farms, Eckert said; pumpkin patches, hay rides, apple picking and corn mazes are more popular.
But once a farmer has invested in the infrastructure to make visitors comfortable, such as putting in bathrooms and a big parking lot, weddings can be a logical next step.
"This appeals to the next generation (of farmers) that's coming in. They have an opportunity to build a new business on the farm," Eckert said. "It takes the right personality," she added, since hosting weddings means working with sometimes-demanding brides, working into the night, and dealing with the commotion of big parties.
Other examples of the locavore wedding trend around the United States include the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., which uses local Rappahannock oysters, Manakintowne Farms lettuces, Dave and Dee's locally grown oyster mushrooms; and produce from the hotel's own garden on wedding menus. The hotel recently installed beehives on its roof and plans to harvest the honey next spring.
Grande Lakes Orlando resort in Florida is preparing to open an outdoor farm and event space called Whisper Creek Farm with 7,000 square feet of fruit and vegetable gardens on the 500-acre Grande Lakes estate, which also includes The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels. Wedding guests will be encouraged to peruse the garden, and even pick and taste.
Mary Ellen Murphy, owner of Off the Beaten Path Weddings, in Napa, Calif., has been a wedding planner for about two decades. Although northern California has long been a food-focused place, she said, she sees couples increasingly interested in making good food a focus of their celebrations.
Farms appeal to couples getting married, she thinks, because so many people work indoors and are nature-deprived; it reconnects them to the earth.
"Seeing elegance out in the middle of nature brings back some fond memory of childhood and how good it felt to run around," Murphy said. "People want to bottle that feeling and give that to their guests."
She recently helped her publicist, Elana Free, plan her wedding, with a farm-like vibe that drew on Free's childhood memories of visiting her grandparents' ranch. "We would pick mulberries for hours during the summer from which my grandma would make delicious jam and pie. We gathered persimmons and walnuts, eggs from the chickens, pulled carrots from the garden, milked the goats, and even went scouting for arrowheads," Free recalled.
Free said her wedding menu featured local peaches and watermelon agua fresca at the welcome table; locally sourced chicken on the family-style, build-your-own-tacos dinner menu; locally roasted coffee at an espresso bar; local wine; and a dessert bar with family favorites made by relatives.
Buttermilk Falls, in Milton, N.Y., typically hosts about 10 weddings a year, getting some menu items from its nearby Millstone Farm — 10 acres of organic herbs, vegetables and fruits — and its restaurant, Henry's Farm to Table.
Chad Greer, who recently joined as chef, gears large-scale recipes to what's in season. At the tail end of tomato season, for instance, he liked making panzanella salad with the resort's own bread and basil. He is lobbying for an Argentinian barbecue so he can do whole local pigs.
Pollock said a wedding on the property is low key and natural.
"This is not a heels place," he said. "I tell people, don't wear your Jimmy Choos, wear your Merrills."
If you are considering a farm wedding, some tips from experts:
— Keep the food fun and familiar. You can accommodate less adventurous diners (and vegetarians) with a baked potato bar, for example.
— Plan for the season but stay flexible. If you want peaches and tomatoes on a locavore menu, that probably means July, not February. But weather conditions the year of your wedding could speed up, slow down or wipe out a particular crop.
— Prepare for outdoor conditions. Have extra wraps for cool evenings, and cheap sunglasses.
— Have a bad-weather contingency plan. If you're outside, have a backup like a tent, and if you're in a barn or other farm building, don't assume there's heat or air conditioning.
— Remember that guests might think of a wedding as dressy. Either spell out a casual dress code, or think about how you'll keep high heels and fancy dresses clean.