When Kevin and Maggie Krug started planning their wedding several months ago, they knew they wanted to get married in a barn.
“We like the rustic theme,” Maggie Krug said. “It seems like every wedding you see on Pinterest with the burlap and the lace and the baby breath and Mason jars. So why not just take it to the next level and have it in a barn instead of a banquet hall?”
The Krugs are part of a fast-growing number of couples who are choosing to celebrate their wedding or their reception — or both — in renovated or converted barns. The setting allows couples to be as casual and creative as they want, personalize their event, and take advantage of nature as a backdrop and a roof in case of inclement weather.
Last year, 15 percent of American couples held their wedding reception at a barn or farm, up from just 2 percent in 2009, according to The Knot’s annual wedding survey.
Meanwhile, the number of couples choosing to hold their wedding reception in a banquet hall dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent in that time frame.
“We can easily say this is a legitimate social and business trend,” said Steve Nagy, owner of Homestead Meadows, a farm and event barn near Appleton.
The result is new life for old dairy barns in Wisconsin’s countryside. Farm owners are finding they can get a second income, and in some cases even outside investors are coming in to do renovations and meet the demand.
“When we first started we didn’t have to do any marketing,” said Lorin Humphrey, who opened The Enchanted Barn in Hillsdale in 2004. “People who were looking for this type of venue kind of had nowhere else to go.”
Now the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association says Wisconsin has at least 150 “event barns.”
Looking for something different
The majority of barns already are booking weddings for two years from now; some say they are almost completely booked through 2020.
Couples say they pick these venues for the picturesque views, the convenience of having the ceremony, reception and dance at one location, and the freedom to make their vision come to life on the blank wooden walls of the barn.
But event barn owners and couples say overall this is part of a cultural shift toward more casual weddings as people search for unique experiences.
“It’s not just another wedding at the hotel that six of your friends have had weddings at,” Maggie Krug said.
The Krugs, who reside in the village of Vesper, were married at Eron’s Event Barn outside nearby Stevens Point on July 14. At their wedding, drinks were served in plastic cups with the couple’s initials, and guests wrote messages on a wooden sign instead of in a guestbook.
The decorations were simple. Baby’s breath in Mason jars replaced elaborate centerpieces. Fairy lights were strung around the wooden beams as an extra touch.
Kevin and Maggie are both firefighters, so the wedding party arrived by firetruck.
“Having our wedding in a barn was unique in the way that we got to truly set the mood for our guests,” Maggie Krug said. “Like we got to bring our firetrucks there. There are so few venues that would have allowed such equipment on their grounds.”
Many other couples also want to showcase their personality at their wedding.
“We really appeal to the DIY (do-it-yourself) brides who want to design their wedding,” said Melissa Eron, who owns Eron’s Event Barn barn with her husband, John.
At other barn weddings, carefully mismatched plates replace fancy china, and dinner could be artisan pizza or barbecue. If the weather is nice, guests can take a break from dancing to play yard games, and the evening may end roasting s’mores around a fire.
“Every wedding here is different,” Melissa Eron said. “There’s different decorations, different table layout, different people.”
Each barn is different too. Eron’s Event Barn has modern amenities such as air conditioning, heat and flushable toilets. Other barns do not.
“Many brides want super rustic,” John Eron said. “Having A/C is not as big of an advantage as you may think.”
Concerns over licensing, codes
The blossoming business is not without some concerns and controversy.
Some wedding websites caution brides to make sure their dream barn venue is safe and won’t be shut down before their big day. There are fears that old barns could collapse under the weight of dancing guests, injuries could be easy (think rusted nails and uneven boards), and fire can spread quickly without proper renovations and safety precautions. They may not be handicapped accessible and may not meet up-to-date building codes.
“There are big engineering differences between a banquet hall and an old barn,” John Eron said.
Guidelines released in 2015 from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services require repurposed agriculture facilities used as public buildings to be brought into compliance with the state’s commercial building code.
The guidelines also state barn owners should work with local municipalities on other requirements such as zoning and licenses.
The guidelines do not require agriculture venues used for private purposes to meet the commercial building code, which provides a loophole for some barn owners.
Weddings are considered private events, and the barn is private property. Critics say barn owners should meet the building code regardless, but other barn owners say the extra regulations would hurt business.
Traditional wedding venues and their advocates say this gray area is not only unsafe but also unfair.
“We’ve created this tremendous disadvantage to licensed businesses like this,” said Scott Stenger, a lobbyist for the Tavern League of Wisconsin.
The majority of local municipalities do not require barns to have a liquor license or use licensed bartenders, a fact that Stenger believes many couples do not understand.
“The public has an expectation that when they go to these events that the food will be safe and that there will be licensed bartenders, but that’s not the case,” Stenger said.
Several bills relating to event barns have come before the state legislature in recent years, but they did not pass. One required event barns to have liquor licenses and another outlined safety requirements.
Barn owners suggest Stenger’s concerns are a smokescreen. Nagy said event barns are taking enough safety precautions and noted that there haven’t been any accidents at these venues for decades.
“If you owned a traditional banquet hall and business was way down, then naturally you would be looking for ways to bite the competition,” Nagy said.
Creating other revenue streams
As people look for unique experiences, farms also are benefiting from an increased interest in other forms of agriculture tourism, or agritourism.
Event barns are hosting craft nights, farm-to-table dinners and concerts, in addition to weddings, birthday parties and corporate retreats.
Other farms offer agriculture education programs where farm-goers can pick their own produce or milk a cow. Some take advantage of holidays; Halloween is a particularly big draw, with farmers offering corn mazes and hayrides and pumpkin patches.
All are bringing more revenue to family farmers who are struggling under low commodity prices and an overall depressed agriculture economy. Just last year, Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms.
“So many families struggle to maintain the family farm,” said Sheila Everhart. “With the diversification of agritourism, it can help provide money to pay the bills.”
Everhart and Nagy, both from the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, said most farm families invest the revenue they generate from weddings and agritourism back into the farm.
“Many are not soaking in cash,” Nagy said.
The economic benefits of agritourism are also extending beyond farmers to help other businesses in rural communities.
“A wedding is a relatively high-cost activity, and the venue is a relatively modest part of that total,” Nagy said.
The average cost of a wedding in Wisconsin is $26,000, and about $12,000 of that total is normally put toward the venue, according to The Knot.
Couples also pay thousands of dollars for catering, a disc jockey, a photographer and a wedding cake, often from local vendors. Nearby hotels, bars and restaurants can benefit from the influx of people.
“This really helps the rural economy,” Everhart said. “When the market crashed in 2008, these rural economies were the last to recover.”
Event barn owners said they’re not worried about this extra revenue stream leaving anytime soon.
Both barn owners and couples said they believe the trend will stick around, even after Pinterest users move onto something else.
“I think to a degree it will peak and then settle down,” Humphrey said. “But it won’t go away.”
Maggie Krug agreed and said there will always be brides like her who want a casual and simple wedding.
“This is a great choice for the brides and grooms who want to have a nice, fun and rustic, lower-key kind of thing,” she said.
And if the goal is to create a unique experience, both event barn owners and couples agree that there’s just nothing else like it.
“Guests say it’s a beautiful experience and that they have never experienced anything like that before,” Humphrey said. “That’s what makes memories last a long time versus a regular wedding.”