Having spent the last twenty-two years building a successful organic farm in Chelsea, Richard Andres and Deb Lentz are tackling their next big project: building a second, even bigger enterprise just north of Ann Arbor along Whitmore Lake Rd.

“You kind of hit the wall with production sometimes,” says Andres, who co-owns Tantre Farm in Chelsea with Lentz. “It gets a little old or whatever, and then it’s like, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ I was thinking I wanted a Ferrari, and then I thought, ‘No. I’ll stick with the farming genre.'”

He’s joking about the Ferrari, but the new venture is much more than a farm, it’s a “food hub”–a business that distributes and markets local food. Because they’re local, they’re adaptable and vary in their business model from place to place. “They’re like snowflakes,” says Kim Bayer, the third member of the Washtenaw Food Hub’s leadership. “Each of them is unique to their own home situation.”


Andres and Lentz bought the original sixteen-acre parcel here in 2011. It once was part of the Braun centennial farm, where a developer proposed to build 1,300 mobile homes and houses at the turn of this century. Instead, local governments joined forces to purchase the development rights.

The Food Hub’s owners pulled down some old buildings on the property and thoroughly renovated the rest. The structure closest to Whitmore Lake Rd. now houses a large meeting area, where on this spring visit U-M professor Jennifer Blesh is teaching a class on cover crops for a group of thirteen local farmers and students. In the back of that building are two commercial kitchens, partially funded by a $200,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, available for rent by local food businesses.

Elsewhere on the property are a repair shop, a farmhouse, and one large outbuilding being renovated for cold storage of root vegetables. And just down the road is the Food Hub’s latest acquisition: 187 acres of farmland that they could afford only because its use is restricted by conservation easements.

Although the work has so far focused on renovation and installing infrastructure like the kitchens, the vision for the food hub’s future is broad. In addition to food production, preparation, and storage, the organizers envision it as a public destination. Bayer points out a large pond where they hope to host picnics and educational programs.

The hub’s governing concept is to practice, support, and promote local agriculture. It’s a private business, but one that’s guided by a “triple-bottom-line” philosophy that considers social and ecological impacts alongside profit. Andres says he expects the approach will be well supported by Ann Arbor’s strong “food community,” and he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He says he and Lentz “leveraged the rest of our farm and the momentum we had in our business for the last twenty years into this.

“We’re trying to explore what it means to be locavestors and invest all of our savings into the local economy, rather than investing retirement into Wall Street and dubious corporations that have absentee ownership, that have no commitment to place or ecology, and don’t necessarily have a guiding principle that we would agree upon,” he says. “We can sort of control what happens here a little bit.”


When I return in early June, a dramatic change in the property is immediately apparent: three long rows of solar panels have been installed close to the ground on the property’s southern side, and two of the roofs on the large outbuildings are covered in gleaming black panels as well. A USDA grant covered 25 percent of the $500,000 installation; Andres says he and Lentz “basically remortgaged our farm” to cover the rest. The panels generate up to 1,800 kilowatt-hours per day.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to try it out and just see what potential there is for solar and solar energy,” Andres says as he slowly drives an old box truck out of the main parking lot. Andres is compactly built, with a contemplative nature and a seemingly perpetual squint that makes him seem standoffish at first. However, in the Buddhist tradition he’s studied, Andres doesn’t speak without meditating a little first. When he does, he reveals a vast knowledge of agriculture, an occasional wicked sense of humor, and a passion that seems to be the driving force behind the food hub operation.

Today we’re touring the new 187 acres, dubbed “Arbor North,” stretching across both Whitmore Lake Rd. and US-23–some of the acreage is actually underneath pavement. But “we want the road access,” Andres says. “We want to have the people on the land.”

His plan for the new fields is based on the principles of “agroecology,” an approach to farming emphasizing practices that replicate or reinforce the plant and animal species native to the area–or, as Andres puts it, “farming in nature’s image.” For much of Arbor North, that will involve first planting native grasses, followed eventually by corridors of chestnut, hazelnut, and other nut trees.

An original sixteen-acre parcel is already planted with a number of crops including asparagus, raspberries, currants, and a day-neutral variety of strawberries that produce fruit from summer late into the fall. Andres hopes to establish a U-pick patch here. “I just want people to be able to have an experience,” he says. “Kids love fruit, and for them to be able to pick their fruit directly within five minutes of downtown, to me it’s a great thing.”

Today Oscar Bee is weeding the field using a tractor-pulled tine weeder. Bee quit his job evaluating Medicaid and Medicare programs for a health policy research firm last year to work for Andres. Lanky and deeply tanned, he speaks softly and thoughtfully with a squint in his eye. “It’s good to be growing food,” Bee says. “I know Medicaid and Medicare are trying to help people, trying to make them healthier, but it seems like they’re going about it the wrong way. This feels a little bit more preventative, growing some healthy food and getting it in people’s bodies.”


I return in early July to visit the Food Hub’s kitchens. David Klingenberger is another of Andres’s proteges–though David’s personality, at least on the surface, is very different. Tall, bespectacled, burly, and exuberant, Klingenberger describes himself as an “in-your-face, up-tempo kind of guy.” He’s also the founder of the Brinery, one of the two local food businesses that currently rent space in the hub’s commercial kitchens.

Klingenberger was in high school at Community when he first visited Tantre Farm. He says something “clicked” as soon as he stepped foot on the site, and he worked his first full season there in 1999. That year the farm harvested a bumper crop of cabbage, which Klingenberger brewed into his first batch of sauerkraut–sparking an enduring passion for fermentation.

“It’s almost like early humans, when they started domesticating wild animals and keeping them enclosed,” Klingenberger says with a zealous gleam in his eye. “We’re doing that with these wild bacterias. We’re corralling them in these barrels and creating the perfect environment for them to thrive.”

More than 100 blue plastic barrels now stand in a large storage room painted a sunny yellow in the back of the hub’s main building. Most contain sauerkraut, which takes up to two months to ferment; others contain pickles or kimchi, which take only a week. Klingenberger says that moving here last year allowed the Brinery to expand significantly. When he started in 2010, he had only $400 in the bank; now he employs fifteen people and grossed $500,000 last year. He uses another room for fermenting tempeh, and a third for processing. Now he’s looking at wider markets: “I love the idea that our food is being exported to Chicago, to Madison, to St. Louis, communities outside of Michigan.”

Rena Basch shares one of the hub’s kitchen spaces with the Brinery, and today she and some of her five employees are packaging Lenawee County-grown blueberries for her frozen-food CSA, Locavorious. Basch founded the business eight years ago, leaving behind a fifteen-year career in materials research at Ford. “People used to put up food themselves, and everybody used to have a chest freezer,” Basch says. “Nobody really has that anymore, even if they have the time.”

She moved here after the freezer storage facility where she’d previously rented space closed last year. Basch, who also works part-time as the Ann Arbor Township clerk, says she’s amazed at how Andres and Lentz have “translated their vision” from Tantre to the food hub.

Klingenberger recalls a similar disbelief when he first saw the property, but he’s now fully on board with the hub’s mission and its future potential. He rhapsodizes about starting a Brinery retail store on the property, complete with a “fermentation bar”–“almost like Baskin-Robbins, except it’s not ice cream. It’s crocks of different pickles.” From his first batch of cabbage to his business’s newest home, Klingenberger asserts that he wouldn’t be “the man I am today” without Andres’s influence. “He is expending the energy and finding the resources, somehow, to build infrastructure that will be available for the life of this project and for our children’s children, hopefully.”


By my next visit, the township board has granted the hub a permit as a major agricultural educational facility; after making some improvements, including finishing an additional bathroom in the main building, they’ll be able to host events for up to 300 people. A new locally sourced organic baby food company called Baby Purest is about to begin renting space in the kitchens. And despite heavy rain in June and little rain in July, sixty acres of native grass have taken root at Arbor North.

In keeping with the hub’s ambitious vision, these are just the latest pieces in a much bigger puzzle. Bayer notes that “we still need a baker” to take advantage of the kitchen’s ovens, which are currently going unused. And while the prairie planting included an initial twenty varieties of grasses, the plan is for that plot eventually to include 200 species, in keeping with a natural ecosystem. When asked if that strategy begins next year, Bayer laughs. “It’s not next year,” she says. “It’s like the next 200 years.”

Andres speaks to that timeline later as he meanders through Arbor North’s strawberry patch on a brilliantly sunny day, pulling weeds and making a pouch of his shirt to fill with ripe berries. He admits that his sprawling concept may seem “innocent” to some, but this isn’t the first time he’s built a farming operation from the ground up. He and Lentz started Tantre Farm with a forty-acre plot in 1993. Both continued to work full-time jobs–he in construction, she in teaching–for eight years, while also farming and selling potatoes and other root crops on the side. “We showed up to a fallow piece of hayfield that had been sort of cut over and washed out for decades, and we built it up with manures for eight years,” Andres says. Tantre’s CSA began with seven members; today it has 350 members, and the farm’s size has nearly quadrupled to 155 acres.

He envisions similar growth for the food hub–not just in its crops and products, but as a politically significant model. He says policymakers are starting to grasp the need for more locally focused and responsible agriculture, and he hopes the hub might provide one example of how to do it. “I think it’s really been accelerated because of the obvious climate change and the chaos that we’re experiencing with the weather,” he says. “People are waking up and seeing what’s going on and trying to make a better choice.”

Andres recently brought the food hub’s first produce to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market: twelve quarts of strawberries that sold at Tantre’s stall. It’s a modest start, but he’s only fifty-two and figures that he’s got another twenty or thirty years of bringing the fruits of the hub to market–either to the Farmers Market or to a food hub retail store tentatively slated to open next year.

Andres can imagine a variety of futures for the site, including leasing parcels of it to other growers or developing the food hub’s existing relationship with U-M to have the university take a leadership role in the property. “As we grow as an entity, I see other folks out here managing the site,” he says.

But for the time being, Andres is all in. “I find this pretty entertaining on a number of different levels: socially and politically and environmentally,” he says. “It satisfies my imagination. I don’t really have any other thing I want to do.”