Growing local: U-M alums provide fresher food to consumers, higher profits to farmers
ANN ARBOR—Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff envisioned their business, Argus Farm Stop, as the next generation of the traditional farmers market.
Today, Argus Farm Stop, their updated marketplace, has grown into a $4 million contributor to the local food economy since launching less than five years ago.
At the market, Michigan farmers can sell their goods seven days a week year-round at quadruple the profit typically paid by most retail outlets. Consumers can find fresh, locally grown food—and even get to know some of the asparagus growers, dairy farmers and beef ranchers during deliveries and at community events.
“The farmers markets are great, but they are (mostly) only one day a week, and in Michigan, most of them don’t go year-round,” Brinkerhoff said. “That was a big disconnect between fantastic producers and highly interested consumers.”
The two University of Michigan alumni, Sample and Brinkerhoff, plus their 40 employees and more than 200 farmers and food producers, serve more than 600 consumers a day. Together, they have planted the seeds for a blooming—and booming—local food and agricultural economy.
Argus, which added a second market in Ann Arbor, returns about $1 million each year to the local food economy, according to Brinkerhoff.
“Our hope is to make this community one of the best communities available for local food,” he said.
The two met in 1989 while students in the Master of Business Administration program at U-M’s Ross School of Business and later married. They relocated to the East Coast for careers and returned to Ann Arbor in 2001, where they worked in corporate settings before pursuing a more mission-based path that might leave a deeper impact on the community.
That mission was based on bringing together groups of people who needed each other: farmers and consumers who wanted locally grown products.
Brinkerhoff and Sample did some research, asking farmers and other experts if a purely local, year-round produce market could work. The answers were encouraging, so the couple and a business partner invested their own money in opening the first store in a former gas station on Liberty Street at the western edge of downtown Ann Arbor. They later added a location on Packard.
Paying farmers more for their goods—much more—is at the heart of the updated farmers market. While traditional stores pay 15-20 percent on goods, Argus pays 75-80 percent.
“This encourages them to grow more, extend seasons and to make our area a better area for farmers to farm,” Sample said. “We have a lot of talented farmers in our area and we want them to keep farming, and we also want to see new farmers succeed.”
The return rate, coupled with good sales, has prompted Dave Steinhauser, owner of Steinhauser Farms, to plant more garlic this year to keep up with demand. Steinhauser Farms also sells its beef, pork and garlic at Argus.
“When you market through Argus and get 75 percent, you have a real good chance to make a fair living” Steinhauser said. “On our farm, it has provided the outlet that I was looking for.”
Argus Farm Stop offers more steady work for farmers in part because it isn’t dependent on weather. It also gives farmers an alternative to weekend or special events farmers markets, which take them away from the farm for long stretches of time.
The cafe inside Argus sells teas, coffees, baked goods and such that in large part enables Argus Farm Stop to pay its farmers and food producers more for goods.
Besides the economic benefit for farmers and the local community, Brinkerhoff and Sample see success in the supportive community and relationships the business fosters. That includes employing locals, many of them current and former U-M students, and stocking produce from U-M’s campus farm.
The couple also return to campus to share knowledge and business lessons with students. And Argus regularly hosts events and educational outreach to anyone interested in the local food economy, and Brinkerhoff and Sample relish bringing farmers and shoppers together under one market roof.
“We also wanted to make shopping for food easier, and when you see the joy that people have in shopping that way and eating that way, it’s a tremendous feeling,” Brinkerhoff said.