Surrounded by lush green trees on her backyard patio, Monica Walch is in her element. For more than a decade, Walch has curated a collaborative dining experience called Dinner on the Farm. The events bring together top Minnesota restaurants, local farms, and live music. Due to the pandemic, there were no dinners last summer.
For the first one of 2021, a sold-out event at Elm Tree Farm in Afton, attendees can expect individual picnic meals featuring fine seasonal ingredients, bread courtesy of the Bungalow Club and Sift Gluten Free, and dessert by Foxy Falafel.
In this interview, Walch discusses her background with the agriculture and restaurant industries, her inspiration, what the events look like this summer, and also gives a look into her guided foraging experience, Wild Allies.
When did your love of sharing food start?
I’m from Rochester, and I grew up on an organic dairy farm. I have three sisters, so we spent a lot of time with the animals: cats, dogs, chickens, cows. We had all sorts of pets growing up—well, farm animals. I don’t know if we thought they were pets.
Every night we had a family dinner around the table, and we always had people stopping by to eat with us. My mom always made a pan of brownies and put coffee on when people stopped, so I grew up in a very communal living situation when it came to food. So, we always shared food with others.
What are your interests and hobbies these days?
I love walking in the woods, gardening, and cooking, too. I love trying new recipes and just figuring out what to make with different produce, veggies, and fruits that come up in the summer. I have a big medicine garden. We do a little bit of vegetable growing but we also get a CSA from our friend’s farm. I love reading, learning new things, just creating gatherings and getting people together for food and music.
I have two little girls: a one-year-old and a three-year-old. So, we are outside basically 24/7. When they’re not sleeping, we’re usually playing outside no matter what the weather is, and we have a couple backyard chickens. So, we just we like hanging out with them.
What inspired Dinner on the Farm and how did it start?
I worked in restaurants after high school with a lot of chefs that were buying food from local farmers. When I would go to a new restaurant, I would connect the chef with other farmers that they could buy from. So, I always had this kind of connecting thing going on.
And then, I had a lot of my friends asking me how they could go visit the [family] farm or visit other farms and see how things were grown. I just always felt it’s unfair to stop at a farm and expect the farmer to stop what they’re doing and show you around. So, I came up with this idea to do it all in one day.
I held my first dinner in 2008. I would have everybody come to the farm on Monday, so the farmers just had to take that day to do a tour and would also get to relax and eat the food. What the farmers have told me is [after] a chef comes out and cooks dinner on their farm, they’re like: “We’ve never had our food cooked this way.” The farmers usually don’t have time to drive into the city and go to restaurants and stuff like that. So, I’m also bringing that experience to them.
It’s also such a good way for people to see how their food is grown and get a good idea of what really goes into farming and growing food, how to raise animals sustainably, and why that’s important when they’re shopping for meat or produce. Or you know, choosing which restaurant they go to and things like that.
How do you connect with these farms?
It just happens, kind of organically. So, in the beginning, when I first started, I was reaching out to farmers. If I was in connection with a chef, I would ask them which farms that they bought things from. Then, I would connect with the farm that way. This year all the farms have actually reached out to me to do events for them, because there’s so much that goes into farming.
One exception is I did a tour with Brooklyn Brewery from New York in 2014. On that tour I did dinners in 12 different cities. Two of them were in Europe and then 10 different cities around the U.S., which was really fun. Otherwise, they’ve all been in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a couple in Illinois.
What did the Dinner on the Farm experience entail pre-pandemic?
In the past, we usually had a brewery and a restaurant that we partnered with. So, people would get a beer from the brewery, or a cocktail if we’re working with the distillery, and then also a passed appetizer. While people are on a tour with the farmer, the chef would be cooking the meal for the guests using food from the farm. Then, we would have a communal table set up with all the food for people to grab and take back to their picnic blanket and eat. It’s a really diverse crowd, so there’s a lot of people with little kids and they’ll take off after the dinner. And then there’s some people that don’t have their families with them so they can stay later. We like to keep it open to how people are feeling.
Do you have any memorable stories from past events you could share?
Some of the most memorable ones were the ones that the weather wasn’t perfect. It was either like raining and everybody got into the tent or went into a greenhouse or somehow got out of the rain and finished eating their meal there. The things that are a surprise, like the things that I don’t plan, are always the most memorable.
What do the events look like this summer?
It’s all still a local, curated meal. It’s just this time it’s individually packed. Just to, you know, keep everyone healthy, keep everyone safe, and keep the contact down. We’ll just see in the coming months if we want to have the chef come back. If we have a chef come out and cook, we bring a grill and all the stuff that they need. We set up an outdoor kitchen. After the farmer gives a tour of their gardens, greenhouses or barns, we just do everything so they really get to relax.
How often are these events held annually?
It varies, this year will be our 13th year. In the beginning there were probably three or four events per summer. And then I started doing these underground events during the winter that would be in art galleries or places where people don’t usually get to have dinner. So, then it was like once or twice a month. A couple of years into doing the dinners, I was doing three or four events a month during the summer. Then, when I started having kids I kind of went back down to just having a few events per summer because I’m home with them full time.
So, we didn’t do any events last year, which I really missed, and I heard from other people that they also missed getting together. But this summer we’re planning on doing one at the end of June, one in July, one in August, and then we’ll see about September. It’s kind of weather-dependent, but I have a lot of farms that want people to come out and a lot of people that are reaching out and saying they want the opportunity to get together. So, I’m hoping to do as many as possible this summer.
Do you have any other plans in the works?
We’re also doing forest walks—identifying different native plants that people can use for medicine or food. So that’s a newer thing that we’re doing this year. It’s still teaching and empowering people to nourish themselves and their families, but it’s in a more wild setting. It’s where the cultivated meets the wild. The farm dinners are on very organized farms, and then Wild Allies and the woods walks are more on the wild side of things. It’s something my partner and I have been doing forever, but we’re just starting to share that with other people. I’m hoping to have some dinners out in the woods with more foraging, wild food, and educating people on what they can find out in their own backyards.