Argus Farm Stop connects farmers, Ann Arbor consumers

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The lettuce in Kathy Sample's hands was in the dirt the day before. Unless you're a rabbit, you can't find it any fresher than that.

Her husband and partner, Bill Brinkerhoff, is holding ping pong radishes in white and purple — colors you'd describe as not found in nature, except that's exactly where they are found.

Eight months into its earthy existence, Argus Farm Stop is 1,300 square feet of surprises, at least for those of us who rarely venture beyond a supermarket.

Carrots come in purple? Who knew. Shrimp come from Okemos? Again: who knew. And you can make a living running a direct-to-consumer market in a former gas station in Ann Arbor?

Eventually. Sample and Brinkerhoff aren't paying themselves yet. But that was part of their business plan, and at this point, it's more important to them to pay their Michigan-based growers, bakers, dairy farmers and meat producers.

Also important: showing that what they're doing can be done. Their books are as open as their door, and if entrepreneurs in other cities want to copy their model, pull up a chair.

"We're thinking 10 years down the road," Brinkerhoff says. "We want to make sure the small farms survive."

That's partly personal philosophy and partly palate. They like to eat organic produce from local suppliers. They like eggs laid by chickens who are free to roam, skip, or do the hokey-pokey.

Somebody has to help keep those operations thriving. It might as well be them — especially since they're having so much fun.

Producers set prices

The math is simple. The 75 or so producers they deal with at what's technically a 7-day-a-week farmer's market set their own prices: $3.50 per bunch of purple carrots from Chelsea, $5 per dozen eggs from Blissfield that are so fresh a feather falls out when you open the container.

Then 80 percent of the price goes back to the producer. It's not quite a living for the farmer, but it helps, and it beats heck out of standing behind a card table in a parking lot when the temperature is 10 degrees.

In its first seven months, Brinkerhoff says, Argus Farm Stop took in $600,000 and returned $375,000 to its suppliers. The income includes revenue from a convivial coffee counter that has already become a gathering place on the Old West Side.

"We're forcing strange bedfollows," says Brinkerhoff, 49. "We'll have a kid from the neighborhood asking an Amish guy about his funny hat."

Sample says she loves knowing that customers are interacting with producers. The other day, the fellow who makes bratwurst had coffee with one of his fans and talked about cows.

The selection can be quirky, but that's also part of the charm. Until someone figures out how to grow bananas in Michigan, Argus won't have them.

But growers with hoop houses kept the store supplied with fresh produce all winter, some of it rarely seen. At one point, the store stocked nine different kinds of beets.

Poetry is an ingredient

The idea took root after Sample and Brinkerhoff delivered the middle of their three children to his college in Wooster, Ohio.

At a store there called Local Roots, "I went in and met the blueberry farmer," she says. "I thought, 'Why doesn't Michigan have one of these?' "

The difference between Argus and the few similar stores they're aware of is that the others are co-ops. With 14 employees and decades of corporate experience, Sample and Brinkerhoff are running a business.

They met while earning MBAs at Michigan. She forged a career selling medical gases, then auto parts. He was in pharmaceuticals and bio-tech.

Now they have a woman who brings in challah bread every Friday and lists her principal ingredients as prayers, blessings, sun, poetry and positive thoughts.

Schoolteacher Harry Fried, 53, lives a few blocks from the shop at West Liberty and Second Street — call (734) 213-2200 — and stops in probably five times a week.

"My philosophy is that when I'm eating something, I think about where it came from," he says.

That fits nicely with Sample's philosophy, which is that "our customers are the kinds of people we'd like to hang out with, if we had more time."

Instead, they have a store to run and a movement to grow. And they have purple carrots.