A bona fide family farm should have a few stories about animals getting into the house, and of course John and Laura Wemeier of Bar Five have them.
“One time a mother [sheep] had triplets, so we brought a couple of them inside,” remembers John, the father of the family. “First we had them in the laundry room in the basement, and my daughter Mikaela was taking care of them—she just loved them. Well, in about two weeks they could jump right over the baby gate keeping them in. They’d just walk up to it and—pop!—like they had rubber bands in their legs, they’d pop right over it. One day we found them on Mikaela’s pillow because it smelled like her. They had to go outside then.
“Another time, we had a calf in the middle of the night in January. It was such a night, thought it might freeze to death. Brought the calf inside to warm it up, and when one of the girls came down for breakfast and looked down into the basement—‘Dad, dad, dad! Come quick! Did you know there’s a calf in the basement?’ The kids go to school with kids in Chaska that come from those new $300,000 and $400,000 houses, and we’re the family with a cow in the basement.”
They’re the family with a cow in the basement—but also the family known on a first-name basis to literally thousands of Twin Cities farmers’ market shoppers, due to their year-round presence at both the St. Paul and Minneapolis markets, their time at the Savage market, their robust online presence on Facebook and Twitter, and their willingness to carry out every manner of special order. “There’s one lady who likes a butterflied whole pork loin so she can stuff and tie it, or people want a crown roast or a standing beef rib roast. It’s fun for us to see it all the way through, from birth to the pictures people bring back to the farmers’ market of their dinner party!”
Being a farmers’ market farmer was John’s idea. His family had owned the Arlington land for generations—John’s newborn grandson marks the seventh generation of Wemeiers to live on the property. But John’s father ran it as a singly focused hog operation. Then John fell in love with cattle and rodeo riding through a Future Farmers of America project. Then his kids fell in love with lambs through 4-H. Now they run one of the rarest of all Minnesota farms: one just like in the picture books, with turkeys, ducks, chickens, geese, hogs, sheep, and cows all rotationally grazing on pesticide- and herbicide-free lands.
The chickens, for instance, live in portable 12-by-18-foot sheds with various doors and windows to allow the birds and the fresh air to circulate through. The shed is set on a patch of land, filled with newly hatched chicks, and distantly ringed by a wire fence to keep the birds from wandering off. When the birds reach maturity they’re killed and processed at the Bar Five on-farm processing plant, which is licensed and inspected by the state. Then a tractor pulls the shed to another patch of the farm’s 200 acres right where the prairie meets the old Big Woods of Minnesota.
Not that this bucolic setup always inspires bucolic behavior on the part of the animals. “The geese, they’re sort of the guard/gossips of the farm,” explains John. “When something is going wrong, they honk and squawk and you better go see. But one time we had some geese and some turkeys, and the geese just hated the turkeys. And there happened to be a hollow tree with a mama raccoon and her babies in it in the middle of our enclosure that we didn’t know anything about. And the geese, it was like they all decided, let’s get rid of them hateful turkeys, we’re not saying a word. The little turkeys were disappearing; the mama raccoon thought she’d have a meal on me. Or three. Soon as I moved the turkeys out of there, the geese all started squawking to let me know there’s a raccoon, there’s a raccoon. Oh, now you tell me.”
Those geese are popular at Christmas. That might be because the oldest Wemeier daughter, Liz, has put herself in charge of the family’s social media outreach, and whenever newly inspired but otherwise deskbound gourmets imagine themselves cooking something exotic and old-fashioned like a goose, Bar Five is at the top of their local search. Bar Five is also top of the local search when it comes to budget-stretching, old-fashioned multi-pound meat-pack bundles, like the 18-pound Crock-Pot package of various braising cuts for $75.
Mikaela, the next eldest, is the family’s gifted sausage maker, with a talent for making traditional wonders such as a perfectly sweet and smoky kielbasa and new-fashioned treats like this summer’s debut item, a buffalo chicken blue cheese bratwurst.
Jessie, the next daughter, has a talent for raising the chickens. She’ll sing to them in their shed, and if she leaves the farm for a vacation, the family’s egg production drops off. The youngest member of the family, Jacob, is a talented cattle herdsman, a talent perhaps fed by the fact that he’s been using a Bobcat on the farm since he was 8 years old.
“When my girls were 9 they were doing as much work as an average adult, I’d guess,” says John. “But it was fun. Give a 9-year-old a hay bale to move with a Bobcat—they love that.” The kids are good public speakers. John believes this is due to their interactions with the public at farmers’ markets, where they make change and talk up the bacon in the packages (bacon that is widely acknowledged as some of the best in the state and a secret feature of several local restaurants).
Is it any wonder that the Bar Five family, which has grown up at local farmers’ markets, makes so many locals feel like they’re family, too? “I can’t tell you how many people bring us souvenirs from their vacations,” says John. “Little things, but they’ll come up to us: I brought you this vanilla from Mexico, I brought you this jam from Maine. Those are our tried-and-true-blue customers, but it goes a little deeper than that, too. We love to see their pictures. You start to be a little like family to a whole lot of people.”
That’s not necessarily what people think of when they hear family farm, but that’s what’s special about Bar Five. It’s a family farm in the center of a much greater urban family, a family defined by a love of great eggs and bacon and by a willingness to share a little story about the time the lambs snuck up to that pillow.
Bar Five Meat and Poultry, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Midtown farmers’ markets, barfivemeats.com