The bull was killed the day I visited Tantré. Richard asked if I wanted to go along for the ride. I said no. I was there just one day, and wanted to harvest.
There were mixed feelings about the bull. Some of the interns felt it rueful, but necessary. He was a behavioral problem, and his meat would be useful. Others wondered if the bull could have been saved. The debate was not prolonged; there was work to do, and work binds everyone at Tantré Farm. Whether transitory student or seasoned farmhand, conversation is secondary to the rhythm of the harvest.
Tantré Farm is a certified organic farm 20 miles west of Ann Arbor. Richard Andres lives there full time with his wife Deb Lentz and their daughter Ariana. In 1993 it was a hayfield. Richard and Deb read Wendell Berry’s “Unsettling of America,” a criticism of “agri-business” and a call for a return to the roots of farming. “Soil is the great connector of lives,” Berry wrote. Richard and Deb heeded the call.
Richard and Deb learned as they went along. They kept day jobs at first, he constructing and her teaching. They struggled for five years while developing narrative for Tantré. Their organic produce is destined for farmers markets, restaurants, and directly to consumers (via CSA’s or Community Shared Agriculture). Their farm also serves as a destination for farm workers, student interns, and families. Parents will bring their children just to hang out after picking up their CSA share. They, too, are part of the human fabric of Tantré.
A growing need
Andres is unassuming: he introduced himself as “the owner I guess,” and his demeanor was like that of a Buddhist monk. But that description belies Andres’s skills in organization and people management. Deb’s enthusiasm and attention to detail complement her husband perfectly. I found myself amazed that they could share their house with over a dozen workers with such equanimity.
The workers come from a variety of backgrounds, yet when you hear their stories, it makes perfect sense that their paths led them to farming.
I picked trellised beans with Allia Cole and Serafin, a Mexican farm worker who has been at the farm for years. They taught me to go along the trellis several times so as not to miss the long, curly beans, and to judge the right size for harvest. We took off our shoes and worked barefoot in the warm soil.
Allia has a masters in women's literature from the University of Liverpool. Most recently, she worked as a full time nanny in Sycamore, Illinois. She found Tantré on a Google search, reading a New York Times’ Magazine’s 2011 feature on student interns at Tantré. She was motivated to contribute to food systems in
line with her values — local, organic, and community supported. Allia communicates with academic thoughtfulness and attention to iconic detail. Recalling a broccoli harvest one morning, she said, “We loaded up the Cushman [truckster] with bins and knives, then piled in ourselves and drove to the various broccoli fields checking to see what was ready for harvesting. There were six of us women together walking through the frosted rows of plants and counting each head of broccoli as we cut them from their stems and added them to our bins.”
The men and women tend to work in the fields separately. Allia enjoys, for example, when a “group of us women, with a cart of bins for the radish harvest, walk by the rows of kale and see the guys working together on that harvest. I like sharing the workload, talking and laughing as we work. I like being and working together.” The closeness of the group allows one to be acutely missed if gone for an afternoon — and conversely, makes one feel guilty for missing a day.
I harvested corn with Elizabeth Ann Olenzek, a recent University of Michigan graduate, and poet inspired by her work at Tantre. “Lizzie” drove me, Michelle, Noelle, and Erin S. to the cornfields in an ancient truck with a manual choke. They showed me how to judge corn’s readiness by its heft, how to twist and yank it off the stalk. Lizzie invited me to take a bite of the raw corn. She explained that corn loses a high percentage of its natural sugars after being picked. I was astounded at how sweet the raw corn was — like candy. I ate greedily, learning throughout the day that munching the produce was the key to surviving the six hours between breakfast and lunch. It also reminded me how utterly delicious fresh vegetables can be.
Learning of Tantré from her visits to the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, where she met Richard, Lizzie explained “they [Tantré] always had something for sale that none of the other stalls did, and the news would travel around.” Her previous work with local food producer “The Brinery,” explained that her chief motivation to work at Tantré was the desire to work out of doors. Her energy is indefatigable. Arising at 5 a.m., she writes for a while (whether poetry or updating the farm’s website or Facebook page) before joining the group for breakfast. At the end of the day, she will go for a run before dinner. Those who have written about Tantré — from Horan’s book, to the New York Times, to The Nation, and many local journalists — often find themselves impressed by the vitality of the interns. Indeed, the work is demanding, but its rewards make it worth the effort.
She found “personal satisfaction from completing work independently, from picking, washing, and packing beets into a box that would land directly on a restaurant table a few miles away.” She has also found satisfaction in what she called Tantré’s unique brand of “community.” Lizzie relates, “I live in the loft of a barn with many people, all in one room. We each have our own bed, but every night seems like some sort of exhausted-but-hilarious sleepover. We are all caked in mud, but we'll just fall into our beds like we've been awake for days. We fall asleep together, we wake together, and we work together all day long. I feel like I have known my fellow interns their whole lives, when really our connection will be just a snippet of time.”
One of five interns remaining through this winter (besides cold weather outdoor crops, Tantré features several “hoop houses” for four-season growing), Lizzie explains that cold mornings pose a special challenge. “In order to cope with the weather, we have taken some extreme measures to make the experience survivable. For example, everyone on the farm literally wears every sweater he or she owns during work each day, wool on wool on wool. We can barely bend our arms, at times. And, in order to warm up for our work, we dance before we go out. I keep my iPod in the barn, and I'll turn on Dr. Dre, or Bruce Springsteen, or MGMT, and we'll waddle and jump around on the pavement for a while to get pumped.”
Speaking of iPods, Gary Mazzeo had last worked in the Apple store at Briarwood Mall for three and a half years, and before that, in graphic design, but found himself dissatisfied. “I felt I was consuming too much, and creating too little.” After reading Michael Pollans’ “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” Gary became “more interested in where my food was coming from,” and wanted to work on an organic farm. “Whenever I asked around, everyone recommended Tantré.” Gary found the people “incredible” and his experiences “life-changing.” “I've learned more about myself than I would have ever thought.” He’s become more confident, learning about food production, honing his cooking skills, and “becoming part of a whole new network of people.”
Tantré “has become more of a lifestyle for those working there; the farming fading into the background, but remaining present. I didn't expect that.” Living in close quarters took some adaptation, but Gary is lucky enough to have his own room; he sometimes disappears there with his guitar, or walks the trails around the farm. He’s warmed up to the living situation, and finds “it's actually really nice to have [the interns] nearby.”
A variety of opportunities
Michelle Amiott and I picked tomatoes. I was astounded at the varieties mingling on the vines, from Heirlooms to Romas, and everything in between. Michelle graduated from Loyola University of Chicago in May, 2012 with degrees in anthropology and biology. At Loyola, she found herself “part of a growing movement, quite literally. In partnership with the university, neighborhood and the nation, I became invested in food justice and urban agriculture. As […] graduation quickly approached, I sought a deeper understanding of this problem and a new type of knowledge.”
Loyola has an existing formal relationship with Tantré, as the farm annually hosts “"Alternative Break Immersions" or spring break trips aimed at social justice education. Michelle heard “tales of an organic vegetable oasis where all my cultivation dreams would come true. Tired of computers, meetings, and insurmountable miles of concrete […] I applied to the farm and was accepted as an intern, beginning in July 2012.”
Michelle had no specific expectations, and she found Tantré less of a job than a “kind of life … I realized I came to Tantré to learn how to live. It has become impossible to separate work from everything else. I live with my friends and coworkers, my work is preparing food for my community. Words that come to mind are a tangled mess of toil, satisfaction, sharing, community, and joy.”
Michelle left the farm to apply for non-profit work, but not before one last contemplation during the “last whisper of summer, sitting outside as dawn crept over the hills and I shucked the last of the crop of sweet corn. I listened to the roosters’ belligerent calls and paused to wonder if this could possibly be my life.”
The interconnectedness that Richard Andres and Deb Lentz have sought since converting this hayfield 20 years ago thrives. Tantré could be the life of not only the workers that come there to work, but also the community members who travel to the farm to pick up their CSA share and stay to visit, and of the restaurants that might very well be serving Tantré food right now. Farming was the way of the past, and as people continue to learn more about the food they eat and where it comes from, it promises to be the wave of the future.