THE RIGHT STUFF: The Stufflebeams of Sunny Side Up Farms

theRightStuffBrothers John & Delbert Stufflebeam, Sunny Side Up Farms

theRightStuff2Brad & Jenny Stufflebeam with daughters Carina and Brooke, Home Sweet Farm.

Photography by Erin Parker

At 65, John Stufflebeam wonders if he has what it takes to become a farmer. The punishing heat has yet to subside, and rain is scarce. The fields at Sunny Side Up Farms seem tired, and so is he. Just when he’s ready to throw in the towel and forget the dream, an evening call and a pep talk from his son Brad lift his spirits— “Dad, you just made it through the worst season. Hang in there.”

The younger Stufflebeam knows of what he speaks. Brad is one of Texas’ foremost experts on small-scale organic farming, and for last 10 years, he and wife Jenny have owned Home Sweet Farm near Brenham, about 70 miles northwest of Houston. They manage a 380-family CSA (Houston’s largest) and grow vegetables for some of Houston’s (Monica Pope) and Austin’s (Jesse Griffiths) edgiest chefs. Their latest venture is a retail market in Brenham’s historic downtown, selling naturally raised produce from their own 60-acre farm as well as from their neighbors’ farms. As the past president of TOFGA (Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association), 42-year-old Brad has mentored countless folks—including his daughters Carina, age 16, and Brooke, age 14— on the finer points of sustainable agriculture. “The farm is a great laboratory for education,” he says.

And now in a twist of role reversal, Brad finds himself advising his family’s elder generation as his father, his uncle Delbert and stepmom Denise try their hand at the farming business. “They have lots of opportunities right now,” says Brad. “And Collin County is a great place to do it.”

Sunny Side Up Farms sits on 10 acres outside the quaint little town of Weston, northwest of McKinney. In the dim light of dawn and dusk and on weekends, the brothers and Denise work side-by-side planting, harvesting and tending to the chickens. They never imagined they’d be engaging in such a demanding endeavor at this stage in their lives.

theRightStuff3Denise Stufflebeam picking okra.

The land has been in the family since 1976 when Delbert purchased it with a veteran’s loan. He and his wife Carolyn raised their family here, and it is still their primary residence. John and Denise have a home in Allen and make the 30-minute commute each day to the farm. Denise sandwiches farm work in between her home-based travel business. Though Carolyn hasn’t been a part of farm chores, as of yet, she will probably take on the role of bookkeeper as the business grows. The brothers both worked for years in the defense industry. At age 70, Delbert is now retired; John continues to work full-time as a quality assurance engineer for Raytheon Company. “The farm is my retirement plan too,” says John.

Long ago, they planted pecans trees (many are still hardy), and several years ago, Delbert tried raising emus until that market took a nosedive. But the serious spark for organic farming was ignited two years ago when John attended a TOFGA conference to hear his son give a presentation. Brad was surprised and happy to see his dad sitting on the front row. “I was so proud of him,” says John, beaming at the memory. The conference in Mesquite was a revelation to John, who listened attentively and made the decision to join TOFGA. The next year, Delbert attended also, and together, the brothers hatched a plan—they wanted to follow in the younger generation’s footsteps.

“Brad is really bringing a name to himself and the town of Brenham in the organic farming world,” says John. “He believes that we can achieve that same goal here in the Weston area.” Heeding Brad’s advice, John and Delbert have continued reaching out to other Collin County farmers and have gained strength and knowledge in those connections. “I have met so many neat people through TOFGA,” says John.

theRightStuff4Delbert and Denise in the field

theRightStuff5Early autumn display at the farm stand.

On a Thursday evening in late October, the elder Stufflebeams and a few of their neighboring farmers gathered together at Lake Forest Farm where owner Vanessa Zamora has recently opened a farm stand. The Stufflebeams brought their cucumbers, turnips, beets, miniature pumpkins and two types of radishes to sell, and business was brisk.

They became acquainted with Vanessa at the McKinney Farmers Market at Chestnut Square, where their booths were side-by-side. She had just moved back to the area from Austin. “Life pushes you in a certain direction,” says Vanessa. “All these doors started opening for me in McKinney. My parents have had this land for about 18 years.” She and her boyfriend Aaron Redlitz, an aspiring chef from San Francisco, recently organized a farm-to-table-dinner, the first of many they hope to sponsor with outside chefs. Also in the neighborhood are Esther and Rock Cozad, owners of Sky View Farm and Stonebranch MicroFarm’s Alan Robbins and his daughter Erin, who proudly wears her TOFGA t-shirt.

“I’m lucky to have my son to answer questions,” says John. “But I have these people, too. Esther was at the farm on Saturday advising us on what was ready to be picked. She also hooked me up with Penny [Braley of Squeezepenny CSA], who was looking for more sources.”

John sometimes feels tentative about whether they can achieve their goals. They’ve made some beginner mistakes, but Brad assures them that that’s part of the learning curve. They planted 1,000 feet of okra and were harvesting as much as 100 pounds a week. John laughs as he imitates his son’s slightly reprimanding tone: “Dad, that’s a lot of okra.” Luckily, he found a market through Marie Tedei of Eden’s Garden CSA Farm in Balch Springs. “We learned to cook that stuff every which way,” says John. “Sautéed, grilled, baked. We ate a lot of okra.”

Their first cash crop was grown from 800 transplants of butternut squash and turnips they purchased from Brad. “He said he’d give me $1 a pound if we were successful,” says John. “We took over 700 pounds down to him, thinking we’d have to make him buy them. He didn’t blink, just weighed them and wrote me a check.” Their winter fields include arugula, kale, lettuces, radishes, turnips, beets, broccoli and leeks. There will also be plenty of eggs from their 100 free-range chickens.

As Brad has encouraged his father and uncle, they have also been there for him. John has watched his son transform from an ambitious teenager with a thriving lawn business to the farming guru he is today. “Dad always said I could be whatever I wanted,” says Brad and then adds with a laugh. “I think he probably meant doctor or lawyer. Not necessarily a farmer.” After a stint in the Navy, Brad returned to McKinney. “Dad gave me a small loan to buy a nursery. Jenny and I were always a little ahead of the curve. It was the first organic nursery in the area with native plants. We were environmentally conscious in our plantings. I love history, and we recreated time-period landscapes for McKinney’s historical homes. It was lots of fun but our goal was always to have a farm.”

For a while, Brad and Jenny lived in Weston down the road from his uncle. “Delbert was the guy I shared books with,” says Brad. “I’d always be saying—‘Uncle Delbert, you’ve got to read this.’ He’s been a big influence in my life. He was always the guy who could fix things.” As the farm’s inventor, Delbert has created an egg bath to speed the process of cleaning the eggs, and designed a tiller with 45° steel plates that raises the bed by shoving the dirt to the center of the row.

theRightStuff6From left to right—Delbert, Denise and
John Stufflebeam, Esther Cozad (Sky View Farm), Vanessa
Zamora (Lake Forest Farm), Alan Robbins (Stonebranch Micro-
Farm); Aaron Redlitz (Lake Forest Farm);
Erin Robbins (Stonebranch MicroFarm)

theRightStuff7The chicken pen at Sunny Side Up Farms

Brad and Jenny eventually ended up near Waco where Brad worked as Operations Director for World Hunger Relief, managing multiple farms with a goat dairy and a CSA. Eventually, they were ready for their own farm and after much research decided on the land in Brenham. John remembers Brad always having books strewn about the house—like Andy Lee’s Backyard Market Gardening and multiple books by Joe Salatin. Brad has continued to learn, always seeking out the experts.

And then, there was the turning point, when Brad himself became the expert. “I don’t think Dad fully understood my success until he saw me at the conference,” says Brad. “He and Uncle Delbert didn’t understand the food movement yet. Finally, it hit them—‘Wow, everybody else is listening to Brad, maybe we should too.’”

John says he’s in the best shape ever, due to increased activity and healthier eating. His ultimate goal is to create an on-site market in one of Weston’s historic downtown buildings. “We could really put Weston on the map,” says John. “Brad bugged me to do this for years. I’d always tell him that the blackland dirt was no good for planting. Finally, he convinced me I was wrong. You really can grow wonderful organic vegetables out here.”

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As a kid, TERRI TAYLOR refused to eat her vegetables. Her veggie-phobia was cured in 1977 when she spent eight months working on farms in Norway and France. She studied journalism at UT-Austin and received a master’s degree in liberal arts from SMU. Her short story “Virginia” can be found in Solamente en San Miguel, an anthology celebrating the magical Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. She has written for Edible DFW since its inaugural issue in 2009. She became the magazine’s editor in 2010 and is the editor of Edible Dallas & Fort Worth: The Cookbook.