Written by Samantha Erkkila, Entrepreneur Fund
A petting farm in a town of less than 530 people in northern Minnesota might not sound like a great business plan, but that’s only because you haven’t met Lois Pajari.
“I heard the mumblings. That’s never going to work. People aren’t going to come. And so, there were a lot of obstacles,” said Lois, owner of Cook’s Country Connection in Cook, Minnesota. “I guess if I thought about it more, I probably would have chickened out. But I didn’t think about it much. I needed a job after the fire. And so, I made a job after the fire.”
After a fire burned her store in Cook in 2013, Lois didn’t have to look much further than the family farm for a new start.
“My sister said, ‘Well for crying out loud. You already have a petting zoo. We just need to set hours and charge admission,’” said Lois. “That’s how it all started.”
In October of 2022, Cook’s Country Connection closed out its eighth season on the farm that’s been in Lois’ family for 122 years.
“I have known Lois for a number of years,” said Cook resident Char Conger, manager of quality services and programs at the Entrepreneur Fund. “In the community, she is so important. Her business is an integral part of the Cook community and the whole Iron Range. People come from miles away to visit her farm.”
Cook’s Country Connection has everything from “alpaca to yak,” as Lois says, and is so much more than a petting farm. The farm hosts weddings, yoga, picnics, live music, and educational day camps for kids. You can have your prom in the barn, or you can rent out a campsite among the llamas.
“She does so much for the nursing homes, and she’ll bring her animals to festivals and into different daycare centers,” said Char, who’s young son enjoys visiting the farm often. “And being in a resort area, people look forward every summer to coming to visit her.”
But when the pandemic hit, all those visits from schools and vacationers came to a halt.
“There was a lot of relief available through the government that I was not aware of, and I didn’t think we would qualify anyway,” said Lois. “And it turns out we did.”
Char worked with Lois to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, COVID-relief funding through the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) and some funding through community specific grants to get the farm through that period of zero visitors.
“Oh, my goodness, the resources have been helpful,” said Lois about working with the Entrepreneur Fund. “The networking, the trainings, the financial pieces, the grant pieces, every bit of it has enabled us to move forward on projects that have always been on the radar, but kind of further down the line.”
One of those projects was renovating an old barn into a farm stay in the loft and an animal hospital and birthing center on the lower level. Char worked with Lois to secure an SBA microloan, which got the renovations started by putting a new roof on the building.
“She works with Vermilion (Community College in Ely, MN) veterinary technician students, and they come here and provide animal care and they get hands on learning experience,” said Char. “So, it’s a really critical building on her property and for her business.”
And she’s not stopping with the barn renovation. Lois has more plans and ideas for growing her business and her outreach to connect people with animals.
“My next big adventure, what I’m hoping to do is put in an arena and start animal assisted therapy,” said Lois. “I really believe animals can do what people can’t. People of all ages, all walks of life, can connect with animals when maybe that’s hard in other places.”
Entrepreneurs like Lois are why we do what we do. Every day, we partner with entrepreneurs and small business owners across all industries and across a mostly rural region of 43,975 square miles because we believe they create vibrant, healthy communities.
“I just really admire her ability to adapt and to think creatively and how she can give back to the community and be the vehicle for a lot of different activities,” said Char. “It’s not just a petting farm, it’s the community hub in our area.”