Joanna and John Haynes with English Cream golden retrievers Sugar and Roux. Photos by Sara Essex Bradley

Sweet Dreams: Sugar Farms brings a family’s vision for a country home and a bustling brewery to life

On a winding gravel road, off a country lane, not far from the parish line sits a pretty little house on top of a hill, surrounded by acres of farmland and groves of trees. And plenty of potential. Rural? Check. Cattle fences? Check. Porches? Check. Barn? Check. A gravel road? By the time John and Joanna Haynes drove up to this residence on Bayou Paul Road in St. Gabriel and let their young sons out of the vehicle, the want list for potential new residences had quickly been checked off. But the gravel road sealed the deal.

“Every time we visited a farm with a gravel road, our boys would get out and run,” says Joanna of their years-long house hunting trips to the country. “It was as if they felt at home with such freedom. Gravel under their feet and wide open spaces to run in. We knew as soon as we drove up that we wanted this house to be ours.”

While the story of finding this house on 14 acres might sound like a fairy tale, the decade since their purchase of this homestead reads more like a paperback thriller. The first order of business was to acquire Texas Longhorn steer to fill the back pastures. Next came sheep and goats and chickens and bees and (for a short time) heritage pigs. Joanna started breeding English Cream golden retrievers and John moved his film company, Wish Picture Shows, to the barn. But it is their latest venture—turning the backyard barn into a restaurant and beer garden—that is a storyteller’s dream. And both Joanna and John believe in the art of storytelling.

John Haynes’ modern artwork lines the walls of the living room, juxtaposed with family heirlooms and acquired antiques. The couch and chair are 19th-century Louis XV style, and were given to Joanna Haynes’ parents when they got married. The 1930s club chairs were acquired in Dallas years ago. And the grand piano was previously played by Joanna’s mother when she was a young girl practicing for her weekly performances in church.

“There is a story in everything, and that is what we are most passionate about. It’s what drives us,” says John, finding a story in anything from his personal artwork (which lines the walls of his house and barn) to the furniture they acquire and to the food and beverages they make. “To taste food is to taste the story of the people who first made it—the ingredients and the culture that created it. We love to be part of other people’s stories and to make the stories of the past into something new for the future.”

This belief is exactly why no prefabricated house filled with designer-selected furniture and accessories would do for this duo. The home itself had been well built by the previous owner, with finishes and design that the Hayneses appreciated: heavy wood doors from The Bank Antiques in New Orleans, a wall of windows procured from former Italian eatery Cipriani’s off College Drive, and casement windows from Huey Long’s house on University Lake. Layers of history were already in place, even though the house itself was only 25 years old. It was time for Joanna and John to add layers of their own.

“We have always had a strong desire to be surrounded by our past,” says Joanna, noting the family Bibles they have out, the sofa and chair (now reupholstered) given to her parents as a wedding gift, and antiques from their families that fill space. “When we got married, John had to convince me that old could be mixed with new. He wanted to put vibrant colors in rooms filled with 100-year-old furniture. I grew up with strict rules about antiques and decorating, but John has always had a vision.”

This keen vision gives John the ability to see potential in a blank canvas, in the hood of a car, in an old cypress stump, and in dusty film reels, where others see none. He began selling abstract paintings more than two decades ago; he launched a film company that has produced documentaries as well as original movies he scripted; and he’s created furniture out of everything from the guts of a piano to a gas pump. Family vacations with their sons Blue and Jackson often included stops off the beaten path—to food dives and flea markets—and they’ve spent weekends driving through south Louisiana in search of the best boudin, as well as jaunts across the country looking for the tastiest pizzas. So when John first floated the idea of a creating a restaurant and brewery in the barn, open to the public, it was surprising but not outside of the realm of ideas that this dreamer and creative has concocted before. Joanna knew he was serious.

“I’d been playing around with home brews for a while, and I’ve always enjoyed heavy flavored beers and pastry stouts,” says John, who now employs a full-time brewmaster and offers rotating beer options with fresh ingredients. “But our vision was more than just the brewery; it was to create a family environment where people could experience farm life that we love and have a unique place where new stories could be told around the table. This culinary mission matched our family’s favorite hobby and passion in life. Which I guess is no longer a hobby!”

A former horse barn on the Hayneses’ property has been transformed into Istrouma Brewing and Feed & Seed, a beer garden and restaurant. Native Americans for centuries called this region “Istrouma,” a name French explorer D’Iberville discovered when first documenting the region in 1699.

In October, Istrouma Brewing at Sugar Farms opened its doors to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays along with Feed & Seed, which is its restaurant arm, now serving craft pizzas and tacos. In addition to the craft beers, the Hayneses are also specializing in scratch lemonade, craft sodas and homemade ice cream and cheese made on the farm. Their products boast many local ingredients including mushrooms from Mushroom Maggie’s in St. Francisville, hibiscus from Lena Farms in Clinton, and honey from Jamway Farms around the corner from the brewery. An herb garden on site provides ingredients for drinks and food.

“We are so thrilled that people are enjoying the experience of being here,” says Joanna, noting that Istrouma Brewing is very family friendly, with a croquet court, oversized chessboard, bocce ball, pingpong and cornhole games. Pets are welcomed and farm animals are nearby. “People are mesmerized by the animals. I think we are all starved for a bit of wide open spaces. Visitors say that when they come here, they feel like they’ve escaped.”

But once inside the barn, visitors quickly realize that they haven’t escaped to a typical rustic locale. John’s vivid paintings are matched with found items that they’ve had refurbished, other art and collectibles, plus unique treasures that hold their own stories. A 10-foot-long stuffed alligator caught by John and their sons is mounted on cypress and holds court above the bar. Barbershop chairs from the 1930s serve as seating, tables are made from pianos, and light fixtures include one crafted from a trombone. Old trucks reign supreme in this scene: A 1950 Chevy was made into seating, a 1952 Ford was cut in half and put on the wall to serve beer, and old car and truck headlights can be found hanging overhead casting new light through old lenses.

“Everything we do is about art,” says John. “Even the cattle are bred for the art of it. The length of the horns, the color, the conformation of the body. Art is present in every choice we make, especially about the ingredients going into the food and drinks.”

One seating area in the brewery includes memorabilia from when John Haynes produced the documentary Ole War Skule: The Story of Saturday Night, a movie about the history of LSU football narrated by actor John Goodman. Artwork, a vintage barbershop pole from St. Louis, and longhorn “Bayou Dazzle” #314 (the Hayneses’ first cow) preside over the area.

The art of perfect timing seems to be something the Hayneses have also mastered, opening an outdoor eating venue during COVID restrictions when indoor restaurants are struggling with limited capacity. Families can safely social distance while enjoying leisurely afternoons and evenings with their friends and children. Coming soon, Sugar Farms will offer the Cattle Drive-In Moovies in an adjacent field with food and beverages available.

Joanna and John both dream of one day having a completely sustainable enterprise with everything needed available within their land. A pretty house on beautiful property with great potential has evolved into the ultimate working-from-home environment that opens its country doors wide to beckon all to enjoy. The final chapter of this tale is yet to be told, but it’s a page turner for sure.

“The other night, John and I sat on our back porch overlooking the pasture, and we could hear the live music from where we were,” says Joanna. “I turned to him and said, ‘I would rent a night here if it was a bed-and-breakfast.’ I guess that’s the best thing you can say about a house. That you would do it all again if you could.”

See more photos from this home in our gallery below: