Chelsea, Michigan. Riding in the hot July sun I could smell basil more than a quarter mile from Tantré Farm. I pedaled down a long gravel road where I arrived at an empty farm house. I let myself in and looked around. A handwritten note taped to the antique wallpaper read, “A day without work is a day without food.” I would quickly learn that there was a shortage of neither of the two at Tantré Farm.
I had first met Richard Andres a few days before at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, and he summed up his work routine: “We get up at 3:30 a.m. and load the truck. We are at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market ’til about 2 p.m. and then we go back to the farm, unload the truck, and get back to work.”
Tantré Farm is located about 20 miles west of Ann Arbor, outside the rural town of Chelsea, Michigan. As you come into town you can’t miss the painting of a giant box of the iconic Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix emblazoned on the wall of the Chelsea milling elevator.
Richard and his wife Deb manage and own Tantré Farm with a team of young interns and part-time workers who are housed on site. The men share a furnished guest house and the women share a newly renovated barn. All together they have built a well-organized and profitable CSA with over 300 members. Everyone on the farm pulls his or her own weight by sharing the farm work, cooking, cleaning, and whatever else needs to be done. All the farming is done organically (and has been since 1993) on rich, sandy, loamy Michigan soil.
Of the 50 acres on Tantré Farm, 26 of them produce nearly 100 different varieties of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. How’s that for an omnivore’s dilemma? When I arrived, the farm interns were harvesting vegetables. Scotty, the farm’s Jack of all trades, seemed to be working on a list of never-ending projects. Richard was trying to fix a pump that could throw gray water onto his crops from a nearby marsh. All the activity had me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. What do I do? What don’t I do? I wanted it all: to participate in the harvest, conduct interviews, and collect research. In the end, walking through fields of vegetables with my camera in hand suited me best. And so I moseyed.
As I walked around the farm I found the design and productivity of the garden space was charted on the wall of a small utility shed. In the barn, near a washing station and a commercial-sized walk-in cooler, I found a white board on which everything about the farm was mapped out and documented, allowing everyone to view a schematic of growing cycles, succession planning, and harvest production. Wagons full of basil, boxes full of leeks, and collards the size of tennis rackets were all being gathered, cleaned, boxed, and placed in the large walk-in cooler, ready for the retail market.
Richard stood near the chicken coop, eating blueberries against a tree. I asked him what he does with 26 acres of vegetables. When I hinted at my idea that large restaurants in Ann Arbor and Detroit would be ideal customers, Richard replied nonchalantly, “Nah. Chefs work odd hours, are inconsistent, and some of them tend to be prima donnas.”
With Whole Foods just 70 miles away in nearby Troy, I also assumed Richard had created a seamless farm-to-shelf relationship with the mega-retailer. Again, Richard was straightforward. “Whole Foods represents ‘organic’ for the mainstream.
What we need is a different paradigm all together. We are going to hit peak oil, have chaos, war, and social instability. We are just seeing the beginning and it’s looking kind of bleak to me.” Richard reached into his small carton of blueberries, tilted his head back, lifted a large handful of berries to his mouth, and swallowed them in one gulp. Out of the side of his mouth he said. “Our options are going to be poverty, chastity, and humility and we are going to have to live like saints.” After a long pause Richard said, “Which isn’t such a bad thing.” And I thought I was just asking him about groceries.
Before the evening alighted and I made my way to the guest house, I was invited to a large communal dinner where everyone on the farm came together to enjoy a homemade pizza, and to share ideas, philosophies, and opinions on agriculture, and whatever else came to mind.
This meal was much more than the fresh ingredients straight from the garden, their juices soaking the homemade cheese. It illustrated that Richard and Deb were providing more than just healthy, noble job opportunities (which in Michigan at the time were not easy to come by). They were incubating aspiring organic farmers looking for a meaningful life, knowledge base, and income source. Though I knew I would not stay on Richard’s farm as an intern or employee, I did know that I was finding my own inspiration and ready to get my hands dirty.
The next morning at 5 a.m. I pulled myself out of bed and met Richard in a small barn. Puffy-eyed and still half asleep I watched Richard settle in to his morning milking chores. I was there to learn how to milk cows by hand. It was something my grandmother had always talked about and I wanted to feel it firsthand. More than anything, I wanted to show her a photo of me milking cows so I could hear her joyful laugh. Every day Richard hand-milked a few Guernsey cows to produce a small amount of organic, raw milk for a group of people that belong to a herd share. (In a herd share, consumers pay a farmer a fee for boarding their cow, or they pay for a share of a cow. The fee also covers caring for the cow and milking the cow. The cow share owner then receives the milk from his own cow each day or every week.)
The small milking stall was thick with hay used for bedding. “I kneel down because it allows me to get more upright. You can use a stool but that hurts my back,” Richard explained.
Richard took a swig of his coffee and began his lesson. “The idea is to grab the top of the teat and pull down while you slightly curl it in.” I had only had about half a cup of coffee. Without a few cups of coffee in the morning, I can barely tie my shoes, let alone tug milk from a pair of warm, soft teats. I felt vulnerable beneath the massive animal. I had a vision of my entire top row of teeth getting kicked down my throat in a split second. Richard saw my nervousness. He offered a few words that gave me enough confidence to continue. “You are a new person with new smells, so you might throw her out of the routine. She might try to have a little fun and throw a kick in your direction. She can be a tricky one, but don’t worry—I know all of her tricks. If she tries to bring that back leg forward and kick you, just block it with your forearm.”
I could tell she was getting frustrated with me. Richard was rhythmic and productive as he worked two teats on the opposite side. I was awkward and shortcoming as I worked my half of the udder. Defeated I announced, “I am not getting anything.”
Richard replied half-jokingly, “Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me. Don’t worry about it.”
It took about 15 minutes but I finally started to get the hang of it. She was giving me milk! I looked over at Richard and saw him milking about four times as productively. My enthusiasm evaporated.
As I milked this beautiful dairy cow, I watched Richard’s strong arms and shoulders, and I listened to the milk splash-splash as it hit the bottom of the bucket in perfect rhythm. After a few minutes my wrists and forearms started to get tired. Meanwhile, Richard was just getting warmed up and was now in the mood to talk. I knew the best thing was to allow Richard to do most of the milking and all the talking.
Richard knew that I wanted more than just the experience of milking cows. He knew that I was there to hear his take on our food system. If he was going to oblige, I didn’t know. But once Richard began talking it was like a long, emotional ball of string unspooling, one stroke of the teat at a time. “In reality, our food system is out of balance, which is pretty evident. It has probably been out of balance for hundreds of years. Right now we are at the extreme point. Sure, we might have all of this technology and brains behind everything, but we are destroying our earth in the process. If I have to work for little or nothing to do this job then maybe I need to be a little imbalanced to rectify the other imbalance. But what else are you going to do?”
Rectify the imbalance? “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Nathan, it’s just like your bike trip. You are not getting paid to pedal and you are investing a lot of your time and your effort. Sometimes it is unpleasant and sometimes it is rewarding and even spiritual. Our food system is a heaven and hell cycle and it depends on what your preferences and expectations are.”
I asked Richard how he felt about his earnings in comparison to other, higher-paying industries.
“I am earning pretty good money for what I do. I am growing on 20 to 25 acres here and my income is most likely equivalent to someone out there who is growing 1,000 acres of corn or soy. The difference is that their margins are so thin that they are often looking at 1% profit.”
So why would a farmer want to work long, hard days in the sun while the corporate food giants get rich? What is the conventional farmer working for? More importantly, who is the conventional farmer working for? Richard added, “They are serving a system, and if you are selling to Cargill and ConAgra and those people, guess what? Their aim is to make money and control the grain exports and prices. The food corporations are going to make their profit, whatever it is, between 10 and 20%. As a conventional farmer all you have to do is take 1 to 2% and then you must ask the government for money to survive. From Richard’s perspective, the government was ultimately subsidizing the corporations.”
From what I gathered from Richard, the typical conventional farmer no longer works for him or herself. They work for the government that is controlled by the corporations. Richard was on a roll. Without raising his voice and always keeping his cow calm, he said, “What most people do in a business paradigm is buy wholesale and sell at retail. Most farmers are buying retail and selling wholesale…especially the conventional grain farmers. Go ahead and look up ConAgra and you will see that they are the largest grain traders in the world. There was a time in the ’90s when their profits were increasing every year, so in about four years they were doubling their money. In the meantime there were tons of co-ops, grain elevators, and small farmers going out of business all over the Midwest. I don’t know the exact numbers but the corporations came in and bought hundreds of thousands of them across the country.”
I asked Richard, “As a mid-sized organic farmer, are you able to be successful in this recession?” He said, “While most people don’t place a value on their food, there is a group of educated people who do. There is a bunch of people out there right now who are reading Michael Pollan and others like him. Those people are right on the ‘tip of the antenna’ as the intelligentsia.
For us, those people are in Ann Arbor and some of the communities around Detroit. This group has money to spend.”
The rhythm of the raw milk hitting the metal bucket intensified, as did Richard’s voice.
“Now that the big-ag boom is over we need to create a shift in our agriculture economy. These people like Michael Pollan have risen and are full of insights and they are guiding us as a culture. In my formative years it was Wendell Berry and Elizabeth Henderson. In some ways, it’s like we are revisiting all the things that we already know. We know what the imbalances of the food system are and how they are relative to the economy. The question is, now what do we do?”
I considered Richard’s insight for as long as my throbbing forearms would allow. Suddenly, my entire upper body was on fire. I needed to stop. Richard was too kind to pass judgment. He just smiled and said, “This really brings a new definition of working your fingers to the bone, now doesn’t it?”
Read the Unconventional Harvest series:
- On the Road to Find the Future of Food and Farming
- Grassland Organic Farm
- Wellspring Farm
- My Visit to an Amish Farm in New York
- Farm Sanctuary
- An Urban Oasis for Food
- Tantré Farm
- Conventional Dairy Farmer Art Thelen
- New Forest Farm
- A Large No-Till Organic Farm
- Melstone, Montana—Population 136
- In the Farmers Own Words
Nathan Winters rode a bicycle across America to discover first-hand why our food system had grown to be unsustainable, and to find alternative solutions. He traveled into the homes and communities of organic, conventional, urban and Amish farmers and community organizers. This ongoing series—to be posted every other Wednesday— represents select material from The Unconventional Harvest, a work in progress, by Nathan A. Winters.