The Food Hub’s Ryan Poe talks to customer Cheryl Sabol. The response to their soft opening on Saturday mornings encouraged them to add retail hours on Wednesday evenings; Poe says they hope to open every day before long. | Photo by Mark Bialek

Steady streams of cars turn into the parking lot of the Washtenaw Food Hub, their drivers arriving with an air of happy anticipation to purchase edible works of art: organic, locally grown vegetables, fruits, and prepared foods.

Year-round, Immune Booster CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) boxes are retrieved on the Food Hub porch; these have fruits; vegetables; and prepared, pickled, or baked goods produced by local farmers. During the growing season, CSAs filled solely with seasonal fruits and vegetables are also collected on the porch. And in May, the Food Hub opened a farm shop featuring baked goods, brined and bottled products, cheeses, and foods prepared onsite in its three commercial kitchens. The owners’ goal is “growing a healthy community.”

“This area has a new generation of farmers,” points out Ryan Poe, who recruits them and creates the themes for the weekly Immune Booster boxes. “They’re young, many in their thirties, with a different mindset. Some of them plant on very small acreage, using the newest (and oldest) science. They build hoop houses, so they can grow vegetables as late as December and again starting in mid-February. They’re not growing the traditional corn and soybean crops.”

The Food Hub is much more than a staging site for picking up their produce, however. The brainchild of Tantré Farm owners Richard Andres and his wife, Deb Lentz, its goal is to offer space for an “educational, sustainable, and social network for the surrounding community.” The renovated farm outbuilding contains three commercial kitchens, space for agriculturally related educational programs that can host up to 180 guests, the new shop, and a front porch that invites visitors to relax and stay a while.

“Richard, Deb, and Kim Bayer, who owns the adjacent Slow Farm, came up with the idea and researched the concept,” says facilities manager Brendan Hayden on a sunny Saturday morning.

“Richard loves huge visionary projects,” he adds. “He has a monstrous work ethic. It’s a gift to the people who know him, who work with him.”

Andres and Lentz are farmers with big dreams. What started with the purchase of forty acres outside Chelsea in 1993 has expanded to Tantré Farm’s 115 acres, with anywhere from eighty to 100 varieties of crops each year. But the dream didn’t end there. The couple considered other avenues to support local farmers and supply local consumers with locally grown produce as well as locally produced food products. “We want to encourage local farmers to expand their dreams,” Andres says. 

In 2011, they bought what was left of the Braun family’s centennial farm at 4175 Whitmore Lake Rd.: sixteen acres, an ancient brick farmhouse, barns, and outbuildings. Although parts were seriously compromised by years of fertilizer and truck storage, the remnant of the Braun farm was surrounded by agricultural land in a greenbelt. They started the hard work of “repurposing it and restoring its legacy of industrial agriculture,” remembers Poe, the CSA manager.

The 7,000-square-foot pole barn was converted into the Washtenaw Food Hub, with the help of a state grant stipulating that at least half the tenants must be Michigan residents or live within 100 miles of the site. The hub quickly found businesses for its three commercial kitchens: The Brinery, locally renowned for its sauerkraut; Rademan Bread; and the Harvest Kitchen, with other small businesses working around their schedules—baking, cooking, making jams, and mixing granola. “At some point we’ll need a kitchen manager, but right now we’re operating on a shoestring,” Hayden says.

Hayden was on the construction crew that renovated the pole barn. “Creating the Food Hub wasn’t a smooth path,” he recalls. “It was an unconventional project, and we had never been land developers. We had to learn the nuts and bolts of working with Ann Arbor Township, creating a site plan flexible enough to respond to local needs.”

The shop remains a work in progress. The enthusiastic response to the “soft opening” on Saturday mornings, Andres says, “encouraged us to expand our hours,” so they’re now also open Wednesday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. In addition to the products baked, cooked, brined, and assembled on the site and the produce and eggs grown and collected by the CSAs’ suppliers, he says, “we’re permanently stocking terrific frozen foods and ice creams, maple syrup and honeys, and stocking seasonal fruits and vegetables.”

“Our goal is to open the shop every day,” Poe adds. “We’re starting slow, but by mid-summer we should be open daily.”

Poe adds, “When we started our CSAs, organic fruits and vegetables were more expensive than what people could buy in supermarkets. Now, with such steep spikes in transportation costs, our prices are pretty comparable. We’re hoping that the people who came to us because they couldn’t get produce during Covid will continue to buy from local farmers.”

In a step forward for renewable energy, the farm installed banks of solar panels, enough to provide 168 kilowatts of power to its electric ovens, coolers, three walk-in freezers, five walk-in coolers, as well as the renovated farmhouse and a free-standing freezer truck that stores 1,000 pounds of meat; farmers and local businesses rent space there.

Andres has plans for the entire site.He offered a plot beside the renovated old brick farmhouse for Old House Gardens to cultivate heirloom bulbs and flowers. “We get free landscaping, and they get space to grow beautiful flowers,” Poe says.

Andres, Lentz, and their team are considering exciting new plans for the future, expanding the Food Hub site into an “Argus-type” store in a year or two. “But we’re feeling pretty low-key now, waiting to see how the future is revealed,” Andres says. “I enjoy collaborative processes, sharing and working with other people. That’s the point of all this.

“Right now we need to find people to do the work. These projects aren’t a way to make a livelihood or income; they’re my life. “We look at nature as the farmer, not tractors and farm equipment. We’re creating rather than extracting. But much of the future is a mystery to me.”