Just outside downtown Chelsea, tucked back into the trees off of M-52, lies Robin Hills Farm, the latest organization to pop up in Washtenaw County preaching a farm-to-table philosophy.
The idea behind the farm was generated in May 2013 by Roy Xu, co-founder of GreenBright Design and Build, an architectural firm based in Ann Arbor specializing in sustainability and smart technology. A six month search for a location led Xu and his partners to the property in Chelsea due to it’s unique and varied topography.
The impetus for the project, according to Xu, is based on his commitment to sustainability and his family background.
“I ask myself, beyond producing healthy food from organic agriculture and sustainable, energy saving construction, ‘why did I choose this project?’ Maybe because I have farmer’s blood,” said Xu. “My great grandfather owned farmland more than 70 years ago in China. However, when the Japanese army came to my hometown, my family lost the farmland. Maybe I can tell my grand father in a dream that I am chasing my American dream.
The entire operation — including a lake stocked with fish, pastures for grazing sheep, tilled fields, hiking trails, a fruit tree orchard, a mushroom forest, and three greenhouses — occupies 129 acres with future plans to add a market, an event venue, and possibly, an outdoor amphitheater.
Robin Hills uses humane practices to raise their livestock.
An emphasis on education
An ambitious project, aligned in spirit with more established local organic farms, the biggest attraction, and what will differentiate Robin Hills, according to the farm’s Education Director Ben Wielechowski, is that the goal of the entire operation will be to inform the public.
“We’re more focused on the education side. Everything out here is intended to educate. I hope to install informational boards you see at nature centers,” said Wielechowski. “People can do self-guided tours explaining rotational planting and touting the benefits of a biochar soil amendment. Everything out here is to promote education and connect people to the process.”
Wielechowski, an instructor at Washtenaw Community College and a writer, was feeling detached from the outdoors when he was recruited as a volunteer to clear the fields that would become Robin Hills.
“This position came available, and I was working on the property. It was a mess, rocks and sticks and mud, but I wanted to reconnect to nature. The education director had just quit, and I thought, ‘I’m in education. Is this something I could do?’ And here we are today.”
Inside the main greenhouse, the Robin Hills team has assembled an aquaponic system, crossing conventional agriculture with hydroponic technology. Fish, raised in tanks simulating a river, create waste that feeds growing greenhouse plants. The plants then filter the water used to raise the fish. The system reduces water consumption by almost 90 percent over conventional farming.
“You can’t experience this on a cyber-tour,” said Wielechowski. “As soon as people get out here they realize the inherent value in nature. We are cooperating with the natural world, and we hope to promote that lifestyle and reverence for the entire local food movement.
Aubrie Hale of Robin Hills has the goods
People say, ‘that’s a farm, they grow food, but I can grow my own food’. That, I think, is very important for us to achieve our mission in sustainable agriculture and local food-sourcing.”
Work in progress
Construction on the project continues with a completion goal by the spring or summer of 2016. Robin Hills now hosts a series of classes, including information sessions for nearby colleges and organizations like the Girls Scouts.
“We had an adventure series that consisted of long-distance backpacking and cycle-touring. We had a cooking series that was farm-to-table using our vegetables and cooking in the garden,” said Wielechowski. “We had a series about innovative methods like seed-saving, a biggest pumpkin contest — everything fits into this vision, getting people out here to use their skills.”
Robin Hills impacts the local restaurant scene, sourcing food to Chelsea’s Common Grill and Jolly Pumpkin in Ann Arbor while working to place their fresh food in farmer’s markets across the county.
Community concerns have slowed the construction progress. The land abuts residential property, and Robin Hills’ desire to create a space to host weddings and events has piqued concerns about noise and traffic. Township approval of building permits for the planned larger event venue has been deliberate.
Xu acknowledged the concerns, but assures that his team is working with local homeowners to mitigate any issues.
“Our architects and contractors are working together with an audio engineer to plan the use of special building materials and tree buffers to block and reduce decibel levels,” said Xu.
Despite the delay of the larger construction projects, the team at Robin Hills is focused on the main goal: educating people of all ages about local food and the outdoors.
“Everything we’re trying to do is to forge reconnection for a disconnected society,” said Wielechowski. “And the best way to do that is to provide the experience and to allow people to enjoy it.”
See all events and classes and get updates on projects by visiting the Robin Hills Farm website, robinhillsfarm.com