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Long-table dinners: The tale of two farms

An enchanting evening meal on the farm can be a great way to raise funds for your favourite causes, and to build support for agriculture too

You can tell from their expressions that it was one of those magical summer evenings. Sue and Don Hilborn served a four-course dinner to 60 people at one long communal table under an awning strung with twinkling lights.

Even when the festivities drew to a close and darkness descended, the July evening was enhanced by flickering fireflies and an absence of mosquitoes (thanks to a healthy barn swallow population).

This was the Hilborns first time hosting a long-table dinner at their farm near Woodstock, Ont. The event was a fundraiser for the MKongo daycare project in Tanzania. Don had recently spent three months volunteering at Morogoro in the east African country, helping to increase production of horticultural products on small family farms. Seeing the need for a local daycare, Don then committed to raising money to help fund the project.

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Sue, a local food advocate who likes to entertain, had long thought of hosting this type of event. Raising money for the MKongo daycare project seemed like the perfect occasion. They could serve a beautiful meal, and Don could follow it up with a slide show on the time he spent in Tanzania post-dinner, which many friends and family were eager to learn about.

With tickets at $50, the Hilborns had planned to open up the event to just 30 people, but within 12 hours of posting it to their social media, all 30 seats were spoken for and there was a waiting list. After considering the logistics, they decided they could accommodate another 30 spots. They, too, were soon full.

By all accounts, the event, which also included a silent auction of donated items, was a success with $3,750 raised for the Tanzania daycare project. (The Hilborns covered all expenses out of their own pockets.)

In 2019, the Schurs put on nine sold-out meals, each telling agriculture’s story.
photo: Supplied

While it helped that the weather co-operated, a successful event doesn’t happen without extensive planning and work. Sue brought a friend on board with her experience and food safety training, which was a big asset.

The menu was based around local fruits and vegetables that Sue was confident would be in season (given the difficult spring planting she nixed the idea of serving sweet corn) and she considered the logistics of serving a large group.

Before dinner, guests mingled while gathered around a locally handcrafted wooden feasting board topped with local cheeses, cured meats, Ontario pecans and Sue’s own preserves. This also gave the guests an opportunity to place their bids in the silent auction. Lemonade made using the Hilborns’ strawberries was served along with bottled water.

A local café made the soup using the Hilborns’ asparagus which was served in tea cups rented from a local museum. The meal, including a vegetarian shepherd’s pie, was served family-style. The deconstructed Greek salad of feta, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and olives, was served on skewers. The dessert was an innovative build-your-own affair featuring pound cake from a local bakery, topped with whipped cream from a local dairy and the Hilborns’ fresh-picked raspberries.

Girls from the neighbourhood served the food but, in retrospect, Sue says they could have used even more help.

Waste was kept to a minimum by using real dishes. Sue is a collector of old china and had enough of her own dishes and cutlery, except for tea cups. Although eating from real china added to the charm of the evening, it did make for more work having to wash so many dishes.

From other projects, the Hilborns already had enough tables and awnings but needed more chairs which they borrowed from the local business improvement association.

In case of bad weather, the Hilborns’ garage was cleaned out and ready to go. It was a game day decision as to whether the event would be held inside or out as there was some rain in the forecast, says Sue, who was thankful that a severe storm like the one that had ripped through the area the night before did not hit the evening of the dinner.

Dining with the Schurs

While the Hilborns’ long-table dinner was a one-time event, Melissa and Matthew Schur, near Leduc, Alta., are planning for their third summer of hosting farm to table dinners in 2020.

The couple began hosting the dinners at their family’s dairy farm as a way to connect consumers with their food, to educate them about farming, and to give them a taste of farm life, says Melissa.

Concerned about the misinformation about agriculture they saw being shared on social media, the Schurs got the idea of hosting the dinners while cleaning out their empty 1950s gambrel-roofed barn. In good weather, dinners are served family-style on long rustic wooden tables under the old red barn’s veranda-like lean-to, overlooking a picturesque scene of creek and fields. In poor weather, the event is moved into the barn’s loft which can accommodate up to 60 guests.

The Schurs have partnered with two Edmonton chefs who create the menus based on what’s in season. They also prepare the food at their restaurants, Chartier and Kitchen by Brad. The chefs also set the prices in the range of $125 to $150 per person for four courses with wine, and the guests meet local farmers to learn about how the food was produced.

The event has grown every year from one trial dinner in 2017, to four dinners in 2018, and nine dinners in 2019, with each one selling out. Now with a local tourism grant that will be used to build washrooms with flush toilets and to install a commercial kitchen so food can be prepared on site, and also to insulate the barn to extend the operating season, the couple anticipate hosting weekly dinners in 2020.

Hosting the Taste of the Farm dinners has been a positive experience for the Schurs. “People have been respectful. We get people who love food and want to learn,” says Melissa.

No matter the size of the event, whether it’s a potluck or a formal catered dinner, sharing a meal is a great way to come together and make connections. If you’ve been thinking of holding a dinner to showcase your farm’s produce, to create a sense of community, as a celebration or as a fundraiser, here are some of the things you should consider:

  • Know your legal requirements for road access, food safety, health and safety, labour, building and fire codes, etc.
  • Ensure you have adequate liability insurance coverage.
  • Check into resources or funding available through local tourism agencies, municipalities, etc.
  • Do you have sufficient knowledge and experience in event planning or know someone who does who can assist?
  • How will you prepare the food? Will you hire a caterer? (Contact public health to ensure regulations are met.)
  • Do you have adequate lighting indoors and out (including the parking area) if guests will be on-site after dark.
  • Do you have sufficient off-road parking available?
  • Do you have shelter in case of bad weather?
  • Do you have enough help for setup, cleanup and serving food?
  • Do you have access to tables, chairs, tablecloths, cutlery, dishes, etc.?

Resources

The Ontario ag ministry has prepared resources to help farmers considering opening up their farms for agri-tourism:

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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