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Farm cafes across the Midwest are really hopping in autumn

Chicago Tribune
Midwestern farm cafes are hopping

Pasture to plate. Field to fork. The bandwagon to promote close-to-home products and ingredients is crowded with chefs who know a whiff of opportunity when they smell it.

Occasionally, the distance between farm and table is measured in yards, not miles. It's a good sign of authenticity when restaurant directions include GPS coordinates as well as a property address. Consider these rural dining destinations, all of which are on working farms.

North Star Homestead Farms, Hayward, Wis.: Three women -- Ann Berlage and daughters Laura and Kara -- operate a cafe, market and creamery on a 1919 farm in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Key ingredients for meals come from the family's aquaponics greenhouse, where kohlrabi and tilapia fish grow in a symbiotic relationship: Fish waste feeds the plants, and the plants clean the water. From the farm's sheep come meat for gyros, a breakfast lamb sausage and gelato made with sheep's milk.

Other small-scale farms provide blueberries to beef for the menu and market, which also sells locally made artwork, jewelry, music and items using recycled materials.

Monthly Harvest Dinners begin in October and go through winter; storytelling and music accompany these three-course meals. http://www.northstarhomestead.com, 715-462-3453

The Loft Restaurant, Zionsville, Ind.: The switch from interstate to one-lane bridge is a telltale sign that you're not in Indianapolis anymore. Just northwest of the metro area are cornfields, whitewashed farm buildings and other evidence of country living at Traders Point Creamery.

Dairy production began here in 2003; visitors watch the 4 p.m. milking from behind observation windows. Then the raw product from 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cows turns into ice cream, yogurt, cheese and cheese spreads. The farm's motto is "We milk it. We make it. We serve it."

Farm products figure prominently in an onsite market and menus at The Loft, a converted barn with unusual curved brick foundation, where Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner (by candlelight) are served. Think mac and cheese, free-range poultry, ham-egg-waffle breakfast sandwiches. Burn excess calories afterward on the 1.3-mile walking trail through farmland.

Farm practices make what's good for the Earth and animals a priority. Example: When the grass-fed cattle need medical attention, they get herbal and homeopathic remedies instead of antibiotics. 317-733-1700, http://www.tpforganics.com

The Garden Cafe, Harbor Springs, Mich.: Pond Hill Farm is home to vegetable crops, the cafe, a winery and an onsite canning kitchen for pickled veggies, salsas, chutneys, dressings, fruits and sauces. The northwestern Michigan farm is 80 miles north of Traverse City.

Food shopping and dining happen at the same place, in a barn adjacent to a greenhouse and pastures. The cafe uses its menu to showcase farm products. Popular nibbles include a mix of pepper jelly and cream cheese served on flatbread. Kale salad arrives with a melange of other veggies, toasted almonds and drizzle of fresh ginger dressing (yes, bottled by Pond Hill).

Add burritos, nachos, brats and pulled pork made with antibiotic-free meats. The market is open all year, though the cafe is seasonal, closing Oct. 30. A sledding hill is accessible after the first measurable snowfall. Luncheon service resumes in May, but visitors are welcome to help feed the farm menagerie (cattle, goats, chickens and more) during any season. 231-526-3276, http://www.pondhill.com

LaClare Farm Cafe, Malone, Wis.: Larry and Clara Hedrich began hobby farming with two milking goats in 1978. When their five kids got involved with 4-H clubs, the herd grew.

Now milk from 375 dairy goats turns into award-winning LaClare Farm cheeses: The Evalon ranked Best in Show at the 2011 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. For sale at the farm store are 10 cheeses made at an onsite creamery from goat, sheep, cow or blends of milk, plus an array of artisan products (including other Wisconsin cheeses).

November is the farmstead cafe's first anniversary. Observation windows offer a peek at dairy processing, goat milking and cheese-aging rooms. Outdoors, some animals are close enough to pet.

Cheese certainly makes the lunch menu, but that's not all. Add a lake perch fish fry on Fridays and Sunday brunch of everything from granola to corned beef hash. The farm is 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee. http://www.laclarefarm.com, 920-670-0051

Don't forget the orchards

Now is the time for Midwestern orchards to fill their cafes with apple-centric menus. Here are four where hot cider and crisp air are just the start of what is possible.

Whispering Orchards and Cafe, Cleveland, Wis.: Breakfast begins at 6 a.m. all year, though hours are abbreviated from January through April. On the autumn menu: apple coffeecake, apple bread, apple dumplings, caramel apple pancakes, apple-bacon-spinach omelets and apple-filled French toast.

Eat upstairs with an unusual assortment of taxidermy: A black bear holds a sack of apples, and a fox wears green britches. Eggs come from the farm's coop; meats come from local butchers. The cafe is 60 miles north of Milwaukee. 920-693-8584, http://www.whisperingorchards.com

Carlson's Orchard Bakery and Restaurant, Winsted, Minn.: A big draw is the 99-cent apple pie slices, and bakers here average 500 pies a day during autumn. Add apple turnovers and apple-raisin muffins with a scoop of ice cream to the lunch menu of soups, salads and sandwiches served on just-baked focaccia.

The orchard, 45 miles west of the Twin Cities, grows 12 types of apples and stays open through Nov. 26. 320-485-3704, http://www.carlsonsorchardbakery.com

Royal Oak Farm Country Kitchen Restaurant, Harvard, Ill.: Eighty miles northwest of Chicago is a 120-acre farm with 16,000 apple trees and a 150-seat eatery that stays open through Nov. 15. It is a proudly Christian operation.

The vibe is casual and downhome. Expect comfort foods, served cafeteria style. Chicken pot pie is a specialty. So is meatloaf with cheddar cheese. Take home cider-spiked doughnuts or a fruit tree for your own yard. 815-648-4141, http://www.royaloakfarmorchard.com

Flying Monkey Cafe, Champaign, Ill.: The name is a reference to those shifty characters from "The Wizard of Oz," and the location is Curtis Orchard, which began in 1977 with 700 apple trees. Now there are closer to 5,000.

Kids get a free toy with their meal. Applesauce is a side dish option, and apple fritters are a bakery specialty. The orchard is 140 miles south of Chicago, and the cafe is open for lunch through Nov. 23. 217-359-5565, http://www.curtisorchard.com

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