Tantre at Twenty-Five
Trailblazing farmers grow awareness between the furrows.
by Diane L. Dupuis
Published in December, 2017
When timber-frame carpenter Richard Andres launched his Chelsea farm in 1993, the word "locavore" had yet to be invented. Saline and Dexter had no farmers' markets, and Chelsea's had just gotten off the ground. But the farm's previous owner had grown only hay for two decades, using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, so Andres was able to have it certified organic immediately.
In Tantre Farm's early years, Andres continued to work as a carpenter. He was joined on the farm in 1995 by Deb Lentz, a teacher; they were married in 1997. Together they grew organic produce to sell at farmers' markets and restaurants. Then in 2001 Tantre became a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm; thirty members invested in exchange for a share of the harvest. Today, with 350 members, Tantre is the largest and most successful certified organic CSA farm in Michigan. Andres and Lentz--through the farm's internships and apprenticeships, educational programs for schoolchildren and adults, and new business incubators--have quietly been increasing awareness of the value of locally grown food.
Tantre Farm is "a trailblazing model," says Brendan McCall, a former Tantre intern who until recently served as executive chef at Ann Arbor's Isalita, Mani Osteria, and Mikette restaurants. "They spawned a successful movement. You need a jumping-off point and a place to show it can work--a functioning model. Tantre is that point of reference in this region."
Ann Arbor Farmers Market manager Stephanie Willette, another former Tantre intern, adds that the farm is "integral to the start-up of places like Argus Farm Stop, which is being used statewide as a model store for local food." Besides training organic farmers, "Tantre also educates customers about why organic is valuable and what it means."
Many who know Lentz and Andres remark on the complementary nature of their partnership. "Deb is practical, Richard is philosophical," says Maris Laporter, a Realtor at Charles Reinhart Company who has been involved in local food initiatives for more than fifteen years.
"They balance each other very well."
The couple, now both in their fifties, show off their contrasting natures in separate interviews. Andres, who spent five years at Buddhist temples in Toronto and Ann Arbor, sits virtually motionless on his shady porch for three hours, sharing thoughts on a vast range of deep and abstract topics, while Lentz can't sit for more than a few minutes in Chelsea's Zou Zou's cafe without being greeted by someone sharing a smile, some news, or a question on how to prepare some of Tantre's more unusual produce. As if on cue, a woman approaches Lentz and displays a photo on her phone, exclaiming, "I have to show you what we did with your cabbage!"
"We want to try growing things that are original," says Andres. "It's an important core value. Offering items not seen elsewhere is a marker that says, 'This is ours'"--for instance, colorful potatoes that are yellow, pink, or purple, inside and out. "We grow for the people we sell to," explains Andres. Chefs like McCall, he says, "like challenges, and appreciate unusual flavors, textures, shapes, sizes, and colors. We want to inspire their menus."
Tantre started growing Padron peppers at the request of one local chef, and an heirloom squash called the Naples Long for another. For a professional preparing 1,000 plates a night, Andres explains, the giant squash offers "a lot of very tender flesh that is easy to cut, absorbs flavor endlessly, and caramelizes easily." The chef, says Andres, affectionately refers to it as "the maple log."
Lentz lists other items that Tantre was among the first to introduce locally: Romanesco cauliflower, rapini, Hakurei turnips, heirloom tomatoes, heirloom winter squash like Pike's Peak and Sibley, cipollini onions, Asian pears, sunchokes, persimmons, and golden beets.
Some of Tantre's most original produce is grown to support year-round sustainable, seasonal eating--nutrient-dense vegetables that can be stored in a root cellar or allowed to overwinter in the ground.
"We have experimented with all kinds of storage crops," says Lentz, "and figured out what worked out for each one. We are trying to promote a more seasonal diet with the use of root cellaring, using the climate as a cooler instead of costly energy."
The farm's "seasonal eating" in winter includes turnips, carrots, beets, potatoes, rutabagas, cabbage, garlic, onions, winter squash, leeks, parsnips, and spinach. "It's an adventure to put vegetables through the root washer and take them to market," Andres says. "It's a different interaction with the food: storing it up through the fall, metering it out over the winter, washing it up, and presenting it to people. There's a feeling of authenticity, putting ourselves out there in that way ... It's called 'living in season' and helps define what it means to be indigenous, surviving through the dead growing season."
An aura of timelessness cloaks Tantre Farm's 115 acres in early fall: sandhill cranes loiter in the dusty access road before strolling unhurriedly back to the fields. Trees lining the lane shape a vaulted canopy overhead as an amiable dog herds a visitor toward a rocking chair on the porch.
"In a way we're re-creating the culture that used to prevail," muses Andres. "We need a more symbiotic relationship between city and countryside ... CSA members want to come out and enjoy the pastoral idealism, take a step back from consumer culture, become part of the biome. We have members who commune on the farm every week with their kids, visit the pigs and cows, camp out here."
"There's chaos in nature, fallibility," Lentz says. "People can learn to go with the flow, adapt to the seasons. Nature isn't perfect, but it's still healthy and nutritious."
In 2017, the cost of a regular twenty-week May-October CSA share was $650. Additional fall/winter, Thanksgiving, and December "solstice" shares are separately available. The CSA, says Lentz, is always evolving, always "open to the skills and talents around us at any given time."
The farm is not only a gathering place for CSA members, it is home to the farm's interns, who get room, board, and a stipend based on experience and performance.
"Interning there was like going through the MSU Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program without having to go back to school," McCall says. "They open their home, literally. We called ourselves the 'farmily' ... interns could connect through the family-like dynamic and explore foodways together, make plans, experiment. It was a constant discovery of flavors and tastes, learning what freshness does to flavor."
"It's hard work but contemplative," Andres says. "People master the simple skills, learn to think for themselves, take initiative."
"Tantre Farm is a village where everyone is welcome," says former intern David Klingenberger, who first started working with Andres and Lentz when he was seventeen. Today he owns the Brinery, a fast-growing producer of pickled vegetables that's based at their Washtenaw Food Hub. "I would not be the man I am without them," he says.
The Hub, on Whitmore Lake Rd., is the couple's latest contribution to the region's local food matrix. Andres and Lentz founded it in 2011 as a place to consolidate, process, and distribute local food. They mortgaged Tantre Farm to finance the land purchase; a grant helped fund its three commercial kitchens.
"People want to see where their food is processed," says Andres. "It's hard for people to cook food in a nuclear family these days. Prepared foods are more in demand, so why not locally prepared?"Along with the Brinery, the Food Hub hosts Rena Basch's frozen food CSA, Locavorious.
Realtor Laporter notes that over the years the internship program at Tantre has educated "a huge number of young people, many of whom remain in this area, spreading Richard and Deb's ideas. They take with them into the next stage of their lives a deep understanding of ecology, food, farming, land use, and, above all, community."
In addition to Klingenberger, McCall, and Willette, Tantre Farm alumni include a musician, a yoga teacher, a social worker, a public health professional, and an urban planner. One former intern owns a locally sourced barbecue business in northern Michigan; another manages a community farm in Ohio; one operates a biodynamic dairy in Pennsylvania; another is managing ruminant animals to rebalance flora and fauna in Zimbabwe. From an organic fruit farmer near Spokane to a forester in Connecticut to the delivery lead at an online organic food distributor, they all have Tantre Farm in common.
The internship program is not the only way that Tantre fulfills its mission to "produce and distribute fresh, organic produce, while serving as an educational, sustainable, and social network for our surrounding community." School groups visit for "edible farm" tours; workshops at the farm teach preserving techniques and butter- and cheese-making; cooking classes and herb talks fill the calendar. Lentz organizes a vast informational network of resources and activities centered at the farm, creates the CSA's newsletter, and maintains the farm's website.
Her outside engagements combine agriculture and education. She founded a farm-to-school program, serves on the advisory board of the Chelsea Farmers Market, and is vice president and a board member of the Agrarian Adventure, a nonprofit that partners with schools "to enrich students' connection between the foods they eat, their health, the health of their communities and the environment." She also takes part in the Agrarian Adventure's "Farmer in the Classroom" program.
"We do a lot of listening to what the community's needs are; we're networking, making connections for people," Lentz says. She and Andres, along with their daughter Ariana and Tantre interns, staff stands at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Chelsea Farmers Market on Saturdays, and the Washtenaw Food Hub on Wednesdays. They also meet CSA members at the farm. Besides building awareness, those direct contacts provide constant feedback on the farm's initiatives.
Recalling Tantre's experiment with offering okra, Andres notes, "Those from the south loved it, since it was definitely a nostalgic ingredient to cook with. The northerners didn't know what to do with it or didn't like it."
Another crop Tantre tested was wonderberries, a small, purple fruit that looks like a blueberry, "so they look deceptively sweet," says Andres, "but surprisingly taste more like a tomato--but not quite--and are meant to be cooked. They were not very popular."
Tantre will continue to experiment with new varieties, says Lentz. "We'll keep trying, keep teaching, keep sharing. At least one person has always loved every item we have ever tried. I still have the CSA member who asks, 'When will you grow those wonderberries again? I loved them! They were so ... different!'"
"Demand for local food has grown tremendously," says Jane Bush, general manager and "chief visionary" of Grazing Fields, a Michigan-based farm cooperative and wholesaler. As farms have become "more efficient at tuning into what people want, more people have jumped into producing. Competition ups everyone's game."
The economics of farming and tensions over land, however, impose certain realities. "The land is expensive," Andres says, because farmers compete with developers. Farming profit margins are thin--about 1 percent--and equipment costs are high. "The Ann Arbor Greenbelt has helped," Andres says. "Now our towns are reviving; interesting businesses are appearing. Conservatism and conservation can form a bridge over land use. There's only so much soil."
Proliferation in the marketplace does not mean duplication, however, no matter how often Tantre Farm is cited as a model. It's still a unique regional resource "very tied to the personalities of Deb and Richard," asserts Laporter. "It couldn't be re-created someplace else."
"Daylight is short in the winter, which in a way is good," says Deb Lentz. "So we sit around the woodstove ..." Keeping three woodstoves supplied with enough fuel to heat two houses and a machine shop is just one of many critical activities that occupy Tantre Farm over the winter--seemingly leaving little time for sitting around.
"We're harvesting up through December," Lentz explains, "all the fall crops Richard loves: garlic, squash, potatoes, kale, Brussels sprouts. Plus we put enough produce in storage for the year-round markets in Ann Arbor and Chelsea. We continue to sell to restaurants and to Argus Farm Stop, the People's Food Co-op. We're constantly sorting produce, keeping it in good condition; it's either going to go to a human, an animal, or the compost."
Lentz listed other winter activities: taking down trellises; planning, debriefing; milking cows; making cheese and butter; repairing equipment; chopping and preserving garlic; working with Agrarian Adventure; putting up grape jelly; mending fences; improving the internship program; pureeing squash; the Washtenaw Food Hub; harvesting fresh spinach from hoop houses; gathering and ordering seeds; pruning berry brambles and fruit trees; hiring next season's crew; inoculating mushroom logs; and, last but not least, breaking ice, "so the cows can have water."
[Originally published in December, 2017.]
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