Barn Weddings Can Mean Big Income Boosts

Missouri farmers Ron and Diana Mellon have a new cash crop—weddings—and it’s yielding big.

By Claire Vath | Photos By Jason Dailey

Sometimes, it just doesn’t hurt to ask for what you want.

Before he deployed to Vietnam, Ron Mellon approached the farmer whose land he worked and asked to buy it. The farmer said, “Yes.” When Ron asked his wife, Diana, to marry him, she agreed, and the couple exchanged vows in 1971.

Ron and Diana Mellon

Ron and Diana Mellon

Then, in 2007, a couple admired the Mellons’ newly constructed barn and asked if they could get married in it. It was Ron and Diana’s turn to say “Yes,” together. That last “Yes” sparked a new venture on the couple’s Lawson, Mo., farm: a booming barn wedding business and a terrific example of how many farmers have developed non-farm means of generating income on their land.

After management and production, land payments, equipment purchases and employing seasonal help, producers and their families often decide to seek out additional revenue streams. Sometimes, it may be agritourism or hunting leases, or even niche markets. For the Mellons, it’s weddings.

And when asked about the business’ start, both Diana and Ron sort of shrug. “It just kind of happened,” Diana says.

Adds Ron with a chuckle: “That thing was an accident.”

What wasn’t an accident was the time, effort and thought the Mellons put into the business.

Over the past few years, the style of wedding ceremonies has shifted. Take a peek at Pinterest or any bridal magazine to see simpler, more casual wedding ceremonies and receptions, which are replacing more formal affairs. And barns—those iconic structures that dot the countryside, those odes to a brand of Americana people wish to preserve—can offer the warm, rustic charm and back-to-basics feel many couples crave.

But even rustic, on-farm weddings can command hefty price tags. According to theweddingreport.com, an average wedding in 2014 in the U.S. cost $28,000. Overall, weddings are a whopping $54-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. alone, and $5 billion in Canada. Then, consider that the Bridal Association of America reports 47% of all 2012 weddings were held outside of a church, 35% of which were outdoors. That adds up to a considerable slice of the proverbial wedding cake.

Build a Barn & They Will Come

Ron and Diana know farming. They run anywhere from 180 to 200 head of Angus-cross cattle, chop silage, rake hay, and raise corn and beans on their rolling 300 acres. Sons Rodney, 41, and Ryan, 39, run their own cow/calf herds nearby.

The barn was built in 2007.

The barn was built in 2007.

In 2007, the Mellons erected a handsome cherry-red barn perched on a swath of neatly manicured land. The plan was to use it for machinery. But then that inquisitive couple approached the Mellons and asked if they could exchange their vows inside. “We said yes, and they just did everything themselves,” Diana says.

But people kept on asking. “They just wanted to have weddings here,” she adds.

That progression of “yeses” led Diana, who had previously owned several in-town businesses, to start something new on the farm. The couple decided to call it Mellon’s Banquet Hall, with the idea that the place could be used for weddings, as well as birthday dinners, reunions and corporate retreats.

To ready their barn, the Mellons added a kitchen and spit-shine wood floors to complement the wood-paneled walls. A parking lot was constructed. Since the barn was newly built, building permits weren’t an issue. But they needed a sewage disposal permit, and plenty of liability insurance to cover guests and buildings.

Ron feeds the cattle on the Mellons' working farm.

Ron feeds the cattle on the Mellons’ working farm.

While other similar businesses in states like Minnesota and Michigan have made news because of objections by town councils, zoning boards and neighbors complaining of noise, the Mellons didn’t experience any difficulty. Adds Diana: “The town sent out a letter to ask the neighbors if they had a problem with us holding weddings out here.” Fortunately, none did.

Mellon’s Banquet Hall officially opened for business in 2008. Diana’s already busy days on the farm became even busier as their calendar began to swell with area brides and grooms looking for the country wedding experience.

To enhance their offerings, Diana and Ron added an outdoor wedding space and a gazebo where brides could have portraits taken, and plunked down some cottages on the property for brides and wedding parties. “We thought about building a chapel,” Diana laughs, but that was quickly nixed. “It can’t compare to the church in town, so we built a waterfall instead.”

They expanded the kitchen area for caterers and added a bar, although, for liability reasons, the Mellons don’t serve the alcohol themselves. And recently, when a bride mentioned she really wanted a tree swing, Ron Mellon got out his saw and delivered.

Big Day, Big Payoff

Mellon’s Banquet Hall can be rented by the hour or by the event, ranging anywhere from $500 to $5,900. “A lot of our brides come to our venue because it is large enough for their reception to be held in the red barn and have the wedding at the waterfall or gazebo, with a country flair,” Diana says.

Diana runs the banquet hall.

Diana runs the banquet hall.

And business is exceedingly good. “The wedding business has become our income,” Ron says, adding that they have a big cattle sale coming up. “We’ve always been in farming, but the wedding business is paying our bills … even though we don’t have a whole lot of bills.”

“We’ve had more than 200 weddings here, not including corporate dinners, birthdays and reunions,” says Diana, who works every event herself. She also hires seasonal employees to help, but admits that has been the greatest challenge of what she does.

“Some of the young people around here don’t seem to want to work,” she laments. “It’s hard to find good help.”

But she’s making sure to teach her grandchildren the value of sweat equity. The grandsons assist Grandpa Ron on the farming side of things, and granddaughters Ashlyn, 17, Riley, 14, and Madison, 13, pitch in with their grandmother.

“My granddaughter Ashlyn loves this type of work, and I’m hoping someday she will take over the business and keep handing it down through the years,” Diana says, adding that her younger grandchildren help with setup before weddings.

Later this year, a brand-new rustic wedding barn will be completed on the property, and Ron has been moving dirt to create an entrance for it from the highway. It’s just another option Diana and Ron hope will increase income and wedding capacity.

Most Saturdays, Diana can be found checking in with staff, directing photographers and guests, and soothing the jangled nerves of soon-to-be brides.

“Remember, you are working with brides, and trying to keep their stress level down is sometimes impossible,” she says. “When a bride asks, I always smile and never tell them something can’t be done. I just say, ‘Anything is possible; however, there may be a small upcharge.”