Stewards of the Land : Stone Coop Farm is a Quiet Tribute to Sustainability and Reinvention
When Joannée DeBruhl’s 21-year insurance industry job fell victim to cuts, she saw a window of opportunity in the form of establishing a church garden. DeBruhl did more than produce 2,000 pounds of vegetables for Gleaners Community Food Bank. She found her calling. DeBruhl dedicated the next year to confirming that and honing her skills at Michigan State University’s Organic Farmer Training Program.
“I think small farms can feed the world, even if they’re feeding just their own community,” says DeBruhl, adding that she believes she saved at least five years of trial and error by going through the program, which invited her back to deliver the graduation speech last November. “We need new young farmers. And you get to be a farmer for nine months to see if you like it.”
DeBruhl had already met a kindred spirit in Shannon Rau, a Brighton native who returned to Michigan after finishing college in Washington. The two women decided to start a new organic farm. Rau soon introduced DeBruhl to her father, Tom Rau, who—after reviewing DeBruhl’s business plan—opted to become an investor, expediting their dreams into reality.
“I thought it was good idea,” says Tom Rau, who recently retired from a successful 39-year career operating skilled nursing rehabilitation centers, a multimillion-dollar business. Of DeBruhl, Tom Rau says: “She impressed me. She was excited. I said, ‘Sure, why not? We’ll give it a shot.’”
The team started the farm in 2011 on one-acre plots at both Hamburg Fitness Center—co-owned by Tom Rau and the site of the farm’s namesake 1880s fieldstone coop—and land leased from Tuthill Farms. at November they purchased 30 acres on Musch Road in Brighton.
When spring 2012 arrived, seeds needed to be planted at the new farm, not to mention adding infrastructure plus establishing roots there for DeBruhl and her family by building a farmhouse. Fortunately, the farm’s previous alfalfa crop wasn’t sprayed, enabling the certified organic farm to be productive more quickly than had they needed to transition from a conventional farm. At a time when “No Spray” or “Grown Naturally” signs populate many farmers’ markets, going the extra steps to being certified organic is important to DeBruhl.
“I honestly believe all the extra paperwork makes me a better farmer,” says DeBruhl of the diligent recordkeeping required to be certified. She considers it good practices. Besides, she says: “My goal is to have such healthy vegetables we don’t have to spray.”
That December, DeBruhl and her family moved from an RV where they lived for six months into the new 1,500-square-foot LEED-certified farmhouse, the first one in Livingston County.
“It’s just part of the whole sustainability thing,” says DeBruhl, whose husband, Perry DeBruhl, happens to specialize in the green building field. “Reuse, recycle and minimize the impact. If we can minimize how much we have to use, that’s a win-win.”
“It all ties in perfectly with trying to do what’s right. I want this planet to be here seven generations from now. I want to think about the impact I’m making,” says DeBruhl, referencing the seven-generation ecological concept credited to the Great Law of the Iroquois that encourages contemplating what actions today will mean seven generations—or roughly 140 years—from now.
The Raus and DeBruhl also opted to save and reuse two dairy barns, one from 1850 and the other from 1907, from Weir Dairy near Jackson. The arduous relocation process started in 2012 and wasn’t completed until last May.
With a dry well, vegetable washing and packing space on the main level of the big barn, the former hayloft upstairs now accommodates farm-to-table events, classes and activities. The wide-open area honors its journey and celebrated second chance. Tiny tags still mark pieces, reminding visitors that this hand-hewn post-and- beam barn so carefully built to fit together like a perfect puzzle more than a century ago was in fact built twice, with each piece finding again its original notch.
“We took it down, labeled all the pieces. They put it back together, insulated it, and hopefully it’ll last another 100 years,” says DeBruhl.
The barn did receive a new roof, with the old metal one going to top the new chicken coop, which houses 50-some heritage- breed chickens. The original roof boards now frame a small upstairs office, from which DeBruhl literally oversees farm operations. “You can see the whole farm from here,” she says in the office, lined with books about farming and gardening.
This spring marks the farm’s fifth season (Editor’s note: 7th season in 2017) and its CSA has the most members yet, counting about 150 working, helping and market shares (the latter works through a declining balance). Stone Coop—not to be mistaken for Stone Co-op—also offers more traditional seasonal CSA shares for each season. Members and nonmembers alike place online orders from what’s available each week and then pick up share boxes at the farm on Wednesday evenings or at the Brighton Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, where people can also browse and buy.
“We harvest the greens to order,” she explains. “For the most part the biggest portion of our sales are pre-orders. We know what they want. They know what they’re going to get.”
Although his daughter decided to step away from the farm business for a while, Tom Rau is still actively involved and sometimes can be found manning the Bush Hog or making deliveries.
“Different things like that, I’m out there helping out,” says Tom Rau, adding that the farm is continually refining. This spring brings aboard Busch’s independent supermarket chain as a customer, and Stone Coop aims to connect with more restaurants choosing to go organic. Rau also hopes to introduce grass-fed cattle to the farm’s back 10 acres. Raising cattle isn’t entirely new to Rau, who adds with a laugh: “I actually did that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”