How many of city dwellers dream of a simpler life in the country, a chance to get back to nature and to connect to the earthly rhythm of the great outdoors?
When Bob and Janet Schuttler were first married in 1996, they never imagined their present life as cattle farmers and owners of Middlebrook Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan—how could they when there was no history of farming between them?
According to Janet, “Farming was never even a passing fancy, working the land had never been on our radar screens.”
Living in Barrington, a northwest suburb of Chicago, the Schuttlers’ were focused then on raising their four kids and getting them safely off to college. Once the nest was officially empty, Plan A was to pack up and move into a high-rise on Michigan Avenue, ready to realize those fantasies of cultural adventure, and full engagement with the frenetic energy of city living.
Bob Schuttler, President and CEO of his family-owned business Victor Construction, could now walk to work and turn his attention to office build-outs and other jobs downtown. Janet, originally from South Bend, admits some initial resistance to high-rise living, but with a master’s in Mental Health Counseling, she was soon searching for volunteer opportunities.
Before long Bob and Janet were enjoying cultural consumerism at its best. But as Bob and Janet will be the first to tell you, they are not the type of people to sit still for long. Quickly the luster of big city life began to wear thin.
Janet says, "We were of retirement age, and found ourselves asking the questions, 'Why are we living this way, and what are we getting out of it?' We wanted to feel more relevant, and in this process we began to question the 30-year lifestyle we had created."
The Shuttlers' have always loved a project, and so it didn't take long for them to start looking for a way to put their feet back on terra firma. In 2002, they purchased a vacation home in Union Pier and then dedicated the next three years to bringing back to life. In 2005, on a drive through rural Michigan, the Shuttlers' found Middlebrook Farm, an 1845 farmhouse on 22 acres of land. They bought Middlebrook at first as a weekend retreat.
According to Bob, "Upon close observation, we saw that our soil was grey and lifeless, nothing was living other than the mono-crop of choice—corn one year, soybeans the next. There were no worms, fireflies, ants, spiders, nothing.”
Bob can pinpoint the moment of inspiration when he knew that he and Janet would plunge headlong into farming. "For me I can tell you exactly when that moment happened—I was walking down Michigan Avenue and I had just finished 'Omnivores' Dilemma' by author Michael Pollan. This book inspired a huge life change for us, and helped move our decision to take the next step into breeding cattle."
Just as the Schuttlers were becoming aware of industrialized farming and the plight of feedlot livestock, Pollan's book clinched the decision. The author would have cheered their choice to raise Lowline Angus, based on the premise that this breed of cattle is very efficient grass conversion.
The Schuttlers moved to Middlebrook and began farming full-time in December 2007, in spite of the best advice from friends and family that this would be an unrealistic pursuit without a viable potential for profit.
“Initially, we planned to build a herd of full-blood registered Lowlines to sell as breeding stock. That morphed into the production of grass-fed beef as the demand for sustainably and humanely raised meat increased. Today we do both," Bob explains.
The Schuttlers are proud that Middlebrook cattle are 100% grass-fed, graising in legume and grass pastures and eating high-quality hay in the winter. Based on this diet, they are certain that the beef from Middlebrook cattle is lower in saturated fat and calories, higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), and that grass-fed finished beef can contain up to four times more Vitamin E than grain or corn-fed beef.
Bob and Janet work Middlebrook Farm themselves, with minor help each week weekly with mowing and yard work. Life for the Schuttlers has changed dramatically, taking on a new sense of purpose. Long days start at sun up and they work until the daylight runs out. In the summer they routinely eat dinner around nine o'clock.
In addition to day-to-day farming, the Schuttlers’ are active promoters of the new wave of sustainable farming. "We encourage people to visit our farm, and host farmhouse group tours as a way to advocate this new way of old-fashioned farming—we like to share experiences about small sustainable organic farming and to help people learn how to eat more naturally.”
Middlebrook Farm has become a way of life for the Schuttlers, and agriculture takes passion, financial commitment, and plenty of hard work.
“We have learned to let the weeds go,” Janet says, and seated at the their kitchen table it seems clear to me that this philosophy has much to do with their success.
Focusing each day on the work they were always meant for—work that they love and which gives them greater purpose---has been a growth experience. In order to have all this, the Schuttlers agree that sometimes you may just have to let the weeds go.
6678 Forest Lawn Road
Three Oaks, Michigan 49128