Town and Country


Deborah Stone gets back to her pastoral roots.

Written by Rosalind Fournier   

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

Recently, a group of fifth graders from Webster Christian School spent a day with Deborah Stone at Stone Hollow Farmstead in Harpersville, Ala., which is a 25-minute drive from Birmingham. The students spent their time petting baby goats, gathering eggs in the henhouse, harvesting herbs from the garden, and learning the difference between chocolate and orange mint. Later, in the creamery, Stone opened a towel filled with fresh goat cheese that had just finished draining, gave them all spoons, and let them dig in. The outing culminated in lunch at a giant farm table outdoors; they enjoyed egg salad made from the eggs they had gathered and sprinkled with the herbs they’d harvested.

To the children, Stone herself was simply a farm owner with a love of fresh, farm-to-fork food and a desire to share her passion for sustainable farming—“the whole sensory experience,” explains Stone, who is also one of the most gracious, elegant, and easy-on the-eyes farmers you’re likely to come across. But for generations of Birminghamians who knew of her in her prior life in the 1990s, the name Deborah Stone was synonymous with the eponymous day spa she owned and operated for nearly a decade. Trained as a medical aesthetician, she opened the Deborah Stone Day Spa in 1989. It was the first in the Southeast (only the third in the U.S.) and so on the forefront of cosmeceuticals that cosmeceuticals wasn’t yet a word. The spa offered pre- and post-operative support for local cosmetic surgeons prior to the medi-spa trend. She also opened a breast cancer support program within the spa, providing prostheses, wigs, and lymphedema pumps after having received special training to help women who developed lymphedema, a secondary condition resulting from the removal of lymph nodes.

 

Coming Full Circle

So for those who meet Stone now, unaware of the quiet sea change she’s made in her life from spa-treatment trailblazer to farm owner and local-foods pioneer, it must look like an unlikely transition. But it’s actually the opposite—a homecoming of sorts. “I grew up on a farm in Argo,” she says. “Dad was in the military and made a modest income, and we grew all of our own food and slaughtered a cow each year to put in the freezer. Assisting [my] mom and my grandmother is how I learned to can and preserve foods for the year ahead.” She later studied aesthetics, in part because of her interest in her own skin, battling acne as a teen and young adult.

The spa sold to a managed health care company in 1999, and she found herself free to return to her roots with the purchase of 80 acres of farmland in Harpersville.

“I wanted to come full circle,” Stone says. “When you think about it, the journey from the farm to the spa was the stretch. I learned a lot from it, and it allowed me to serve people in a very satisfying way. But by comparison, leaving the spa and coming back to the farm was no big deal.” She and her husband, Russell, bought the land in 2000. It had been a farm in the past but had gone untended for so long it took some time to discover what they really had. Stone, her father, and Russell—who owns a CPA firm but came on the weekends to help—developed the land and began to consider the options. “I’m probably not a natural planner when it comes to business,” she says, “but I think what you can count on from me is that a business is always going to come out of whatever we’re doing.”

For starters, she had always wanted to develop her own skincare line and felt now she had a better opportunity than ever before. “I decided I would make it on the farm,” she says. “I would make it as natural as possible with fresh extracts. At that moment I had plenty of time and revenue sources to do it, because of the sale of the spa. So I went to California to further my studies on aromatherapy, which was a huge part of our spa business, and I learned how to distill herbs for hydrosols, as well as natural perfuming principles, both of which are fundamental to our Botaniko skincare line.” Russell built her a workshop on the farm, and she set about developing the gardens to grow the herbs she would later process into herbal extracts. By 2007, she had developed multiple botanical extract formulas and held three patent pendings for an extract formula with medical applications that’s still under wraps.

Although her hands were busy with the skincare, Stone was still surrounded every day by 80 acres of picturesque farmland—far more than she needed to grow her herbs. Each year new elements were added to the farm to complete her vision for a fully sustainable farm for her family’s use. “We just didn’t have milk or meat,” she says. “So that’s when I bought the goats.” Soon the goats were producing five gallons of milk per day in the peak season, and she needed a new use for it. “We were drinking goat’s milk, making fudge and caramel, and doing everything we could to consume it all, and I realized, this is crazy. Let’s just make cheese,” she says. She called various experts for advice, and then she began the formula development for her own cheese. The first batches were given away to friends, and then she approached Oak Street Garden Shop and Local Market in Crestline Village to see if they’d be interested in selling it. “They were just blowing it out the door,” she says. Next came the local grocery stores and Whole Foods, and finally, Stone had to make a decision. “If you’re whole selling to vendors, you’ve got to be able to keep them consistently supplied,” she explains. “You can’t be just a little bit in.” They went from 15 goats to 35 in a year, and Stone Hollow is now home to 150. Last year, they produced nearly 22,000 pounds of cheese, which means Stone is way beyond carting her wares to grocery stores on her own. Evans Meats and the Cheese Advocate in Birmingham supply the cheeses to white-tablecloth restaurants locally such as Bottega Café, Highlands Bar and Grill, the Veranda, and Hot & Hot Fish Club. Stone Hollow cheese is also sold in Atlanta and Nashville.

It begins with fromage blanc, or what Stone likes to call “straight up” goat cheese, but she and her staff have also made use of their other farm-grown resources to create a full line of marinated, spreadable goat cheese enhanced with organic herbs, honeys, roasted nuts, or preserves. “We just go around the farm and see what we can find,” Stone explains. “We just planted fig trees two years ago, so now we have our own figs that we use for the fig marinated goat cheese. We used to scour the land to pick wild blackberries from everywhere until one day—this is true—we were across the road, and I saw one of our employees jump straight up out of the bushes. A snake had crawled over his foot. So after that we rounded up the blackberry plants from the woods and planted them closer in. We use them for our blackberry-and-wine-marinated goat cheese.” Though her preserves were already approved for use in cheese, in 2011, Stone Hollow Farmstead had its kitchen certified as a jam and jelly processing facility so they could sell canned goods as well.

Selling the Farm ExperienceIMG_7508-Edit

The business continued to grow and evolve. Using every opportunity to share her story of the farm and Stone Hollow Goat Cheese, which is not genetically modified, Stone realized that many people did not understand what she sees as the challenges of GMO grains. She decided to tap into another asset she was sitting on but had not yet realized: the farm as an opportunity to share information, an experience unto itself.

Meanwhile, another occasion gave her reason to believe there were blanks waiting to be filled in for people regarding what they eat, its origin, and the process in which it’s grown or raised. She recalls the day her son-in-law came out to visit, and she asked him if he would go to the henhouse and gather the eggs for the day. “He said, ‘Sure, where are they?’” she says, with a laugh. “I told him they were under the hens. He said, ‘Do they bite?’ I assured him if they did, it wouldn’t hurt. People know that this is an egg and it’s what we scramble for breakfast, and they know the egg came from a chicken, but they don’t have the complete story, the visual,” she says. “So I began to contemplate how we could share that with others.”

Another new business was born. The farmstead now offers a wide variety of opportunities for people to come and experience the farm lifestyle. For one, Stone has begun selling farm memberships. Becoming a “Friend of the Farmstead” provides a venue for individuals and families to come out often and picnic, feed the baby goats, learn farming and gardening techniques, ride mountain bikes, and camp overnight.

Other opportunities include farm school classes such as Cheese Making 101, Soap Making, Aromatherapy, and Perfuming. Large, festive farm dinners are hosted regularly on the grounds, with farm-to-fork delicacies served at a 70-foot farm table under the stars.

 

From Harpersville to Mountain Brook

Now Stone had Stone Hollow Farmstead; the skincare line, Botaniko; and the creamery (which also makes the cajeta for Steel City Pops’ famous caramel popsicles)—three separate but intertwined businesses—but there was yet another piece missing: her own retail outlet for the products they were growing and producing at the farm. That’s when The Pantry was born. The Stones had deep ties to Crestline, which is where they had raised their daughters, and last year, Deborah decided to purchase property in Crestline Village and turn it into a small grocery/café showcasing foods from the farmstead as well as a few carefully selected homemade products from other farms around the country. The Pantry opened on Dexter Avenue last December, and the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The farmstead brochure describes the Pantry as a “clean-eating café featuring local produce transformed into delicious fresh foods, a specialty food boutique and recreational foodie classes (as well as) a unique venue for parties and events.” Here, Stone offers still more opportunities to expose others to what she’s learned about farming, health, nutrition, and just good taste in every sense of the word—most notably through Southern Taste Makers, a monthly Tuesday evening at The Pantry highlighting some of their favorite southern artisans ranging from chefs and gardeners to jewelers, with a special menu built around celebrating their particular gifts.

There is also a series of “Foodie Elements” classes on Monday nights once a month featuring guest speakers discussing hot food topics and lifestyles including juicing, diets such as paleo and yeast-free eating, “un-cooking, the raw food diet,” and other topics on the frontlines of the national conversation about what it means to eat well.

The Pantry is now officially Stone’s fourth separate company (she partners with her daughter Alex and lifelong friend Lee Shipp), and she emphasizes that none of it could be managed without a tremendous amount of help from her staff. Now that the farm is more accessible, and with The Pantry as its outpost, she wants people to understand the interrelatedness of her vision. “The kiss of death is when people think you’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades but master of none,” she says. “But when you bring them to the farm, to The Pantry, when they experience the classes…I hope people will see that it all fits together perfectly.

“Ultimately we are an educational platform, sharing the love and appreciation of the farm that was integral to my own childhood,” she says. “That’s the tie that binds.”

2 Responses to “Town and Country”

  1. Sylvia Dailey says:

    So very proud of this very innovative, knowledge driven young woman. She never slows down. New challenges are what makes her who she is today. Of course I am just a bit overjoyed that others are beginning to recognize all her talent, hard work. She has and is a special gift. I know because I am her Mother. Great article. Thanks b-metro.

  2. Iris Fitts says:

    So good to read this story and especially or see Lee Shipp! He was my hair person when I lived in Birmingham and he is the absolute BEST!!!

    Iris Fitts
    Now of Gulf Shores!

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