event barn

Photo courtesy of Iron Shoe Farm

This classic red barn sits on a farmstead on 136th Street in Baldwin Township. Plans call for it to become a rural-event tourism destination where people could hold wedding receptions and other kinds of parties and functions.

by Debbie Griffin

APG of East Central Minnesota

Carla and David Mertz plan to embark on making dreams into reality now that they’re reasonably sure Sherburne County will issue them an interim-use permit to operate a rural-event business using a historic barn on their property, the Iron Shoe Farm.

As a working barn currently housing poultry, the structure is far from ready to host guests, but the farmers are excited to start executing their plan. The Mertzes bought the 63-acre farm on 136th Street in Baldwin Township about five years ago and have been thinking about a rural-event business almost since they first arrived.

“Agri-tourism” is a relatively new term on society’s horizon but includes most activities that draw crowds of people to rural venues such as farms and historic barns that host weddings and events. There may also be educational and/or conservational components to the rural business.

The term came to the Sherburne County Board’s attention as the Mertzes and Tim and Debra Almen of Livonia Township came to ask if there was an interest and willingness to craft rules that allow such rural venues.

The Almens’ dream had been similar to the Mertzes’: They want to open an event barn on 9 acres. That steered the County Board into a discussion about rural tourism. The requests and discussion ended with an action to amend Sherburne County’s ordinance on interim-use permits to allow for the rural-tourism businesses people seek to create.

The board acknowledged the existence of such ordinances in neighboring Wright and Isanti counties, as well as discussions many other places. Carla said they did not have the permit in hand yet but had coordinated with Sherburne County and Baldwin Township, both of which gave verbal approval of the Mertzes’ plan. Some officials commented how it’s good to have such rural businesses bringing people to the area.

Carla said the ordinance amendment also had to move through all the townships of Sherburne County to make sure there were no objections. Baldwin Township stipulated that there be no parking of cars along 136th Street.

The amendment states rural tourism could include such things as corn mazes, hay rides and parties for fewer than 300 people. The site must be located in a rural district on at least 5 acres homesteaded by the applicant. Any new buildings have to be set back 50 feet from side and rear lot lines, and the business may not be located within a quarter of a mile of 10 residences.

Dream grows

Their idea for a rural-event venue coincided with a request from a client of the farm, Rockwoods Grill in Otsego. She said Iron Shoe developed a relationship with Rockwoods when the restaurant began buying its microgreens and, later, meat.

The eatery approached the couple about a possible partnership because it wanted to do a secondary, rural venue where it could cater events.

As beef farmers, they had gotten to know Bryan and Marytina Lawrence well and asked his advice on how to proceed with the idea. He recommended talking to the county board and zoning staff. From there, conversations began and ideas grew.

“Things have just kind of started to fall in our lap,” said Carla, adding that the process to this point has been about eight months long.

She comes from a farming family with deep roots in South Dakota. David grew up in Zimmerman and works at Sportech in Elk River, and she’s had the Iron Shoe Interiors design business for 20 years. The two began farming beef, chicken and pigs after they moved to Princeton.

Carla said they’re “privileged” to know all three people who have owned the farmstead and to have insight into its history. The home was built in 1938, and the big, red, barn that will become an event center dates to 1939.

The Mertz family has a lot of work ahead to prepare the barn for people. It’s been an agricultural building all its life so now must be upgraded and then certified by a structural engineer in order to become a commercial, event building.

She said the major improvements will be a new concrete floor, hay loft and staircase to the hayloft. She said previous owners had already replaced the roof and floors plus affixed siding and painted it red.

The first owner of the land and buildings, Lois Anderson, once came by the farm and looked around it to reminisce. Carla learned from her that the property first functioned as a hog farm. They also learned it’s a daughter’s name etched into the barn concrete, so the Mertz family will preserve that piece.

Carla said the farm has been a labor of love and has fueled her passion for saving old barns. She could envision in the future starting a foundation to save old barns, especially after having read there are some 1,300 crumbling, old barns in the state.

Meanwhile, she said it’s been an adventure growing the farm, with things like going through the United States Department of Agriculture for a 24-acre fencing project that created the capability for them to do better rotational grazing.

The farmers have a 30-acre field for corn and hay, which they use to feed the livestock. A few restaurants save their scraps for the pigs, and the chickens eat the leftover parts of the microgreens. Carla said the farm isn’t technically “certified organic,” but it uses all-natural processes.

“We know exactly where our food source is coming from,” Carla said about local farming.

She said the Lawrences and their other neighbors and fellow farmers have been great teachers, and they’ve learned a lot in the years they’ve been in business. The event venue builds on another aspect of the farm business and is likely to host such things as weddings, reunions and other catered parties.

Carla said the Iron Shoe Farm won’t hold a liquor license, but Rockwoods’ license would cover its events at the barn. She said people will also be able to book the venue without having to have that restaurant’s food or any food at all.

She sees the event venue as “not just for us” in realizing a dream but more in creating an opportunity for more people to enjoy the beauty of a rural Minnesota farm and the charm created by barns of a certain age.

Load comments