Roy Xu has fond memories of his great-grandfather’s farm in China. He has also long been interested in connecting others with nature and inspiring them to live a healthy, sustainable life. Now Xu, a partner at GreenBright Design Build, is bringing his dream to fruition as one of the managing partners of the 130-acre Robin Hills Farm on Stockbridge Chelsea Rd. He and three others have invested $2.4 million in the farm, which they purchased in June 2014 and recently opened to the public. It’s intended to be “a model of sustainability,” Xu says, the first farm destination in the area designed specifically for eco-tourism.
Ben Wielechowski, education director for the farm, emphasizes that site approval by Sylvan Township is still pending. But Xu says it’s the ideal location to combine farming and education: a rural setting with unique geological terrain, yet just outside downtown Chelsea. Mitzi Koors, the vegetable farm manager, says the farm is so hidden away that “even people in Chelsea still don’t know who we are.” But down a winding gravel drive Robin Hills already has a brand-new livestock barn with twenty sheep grazing nearby, a pond full of organically fed rainbow trout, and four hilly acres planted with 130 varieties of vegetables. And that’s just the beginning. They plan to add more sheep, along with fruit orchards, picnic areas, walking trails, and an event space.
Koors’ husband, Brent Koors, is helping with the construction and with the livestock and compost system, while her brother, Nick Bacon, is the development manager, in charge of building the farm. Koors previously worked as a marketer for a renewable energy company and has her own small farm in Jackson, so coming on board as one of three full-time staffers was a “no-brainer,” she says.
“Our tagline is ‘Experience your food,'” Koors says. “We hope to have something going on every day,” not just during harvest season. Currently there are tours once a week, but she expects there will be classes and school groups visiting on field trips as well. “We can teach cross-country skiing, gardening, composting, and wooden spoon making, bringing people in to share that with other community members,” says Wielechowski. In addition to CSA share purchases and classes, they hope to generate revenue from u-pick operations, a retail building where they’ll sell Michigan-made products, a cafe with farm-to-table items, and an event space for celebrations and community functions.
When Koors’ brother was scouting locations, he was surprised to find that the Robin Hills Farm property had once belonged to their grandfather. It hadn’t been worked since he’d sold it in the late 1970s, and was used only occasionally for gravel mining. This has made for an easier transition to organic, since “we’re not restoring it from Roundup-covered soil,” Koors says. Formal organic certification is expected next spring.
The farm is intended to be fully self-sustainable. A solar thermal water heater provides hot water, while an aquaponics system, housed in a 3,500-square-foot greenhouse, uses waste from fish to provide nutrients to plants. The owners are also hoping to build solar electric power systems.
“I’m absolutely excited at the whole concept of that farm and what their plans are. I think it’s going to be a tremendous asset for Chelsea,” says Bob Pearce, executive director of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce. He says it’s in keeping with the goals of the “Big 400,” an economic development coalition intended to develop a strong economy based on the area’s natural resources.
“We’re excited to have them,” says Stephanie Willette, manager of the Chelsea Farmers Market, where Robin Hills began selling in June. “They have really high-quality produce.”
Koors says her generation “completely lost the art of being involved with your food at every level,” but “those in their twenties and thirties are really excited to get back into growing and being part of their food.” For now, she’s just focused on finishing the construction. “It’s an organic farm, and it’s growing organically at the same time, so we’ll see where it leads.”