Barefoot Education at Tantre Farm

The program is called the Tantré Farm Internship, but according to Tantré Farm co-owner Deb Lentz, you may be a bit off the mark if you assume the opportunity is just about agricultural training.
 
"Do you learn about farming? Yeah, maybe," Lentz says. "The interns may learn the name of a weed, but then someone may tell them that weed is also edible and we can throw it in our salad. So for me, it's more than learning about farming. It's learning about the ecosystem and how we fit into it. It's about life skills."
 
Indeed, an afternoon at the organic farm feels like stepping into a different life entirely. Tucked far down a gravel road amidst the expansive back-country fields southwest of downtown Chelsea, the 40-acre plot is anchored by a well-worn two-story farmhouse. Dogs and cats frolic in the shade of apple, pear, peach and plum trees behind the house. Beyond are the fields, tended by about 20 workers on a daily basis. A few are visiting travelers from Sweden and Macedonia, but 15 are interns, most of them in their 20s and many of them barefoot in the field. They will work, eat and sleep on the farm throughout the April-November growing season, receiving a monthly stipend of $600-$800. 
 
"It's somewhat of a small village," says Richard Andres, the farm's co-owner and Lentz's husband. "I really can't think of any other context for it in our culture."
 
Adding to the sense of community, everyone on the farm takes turns cooking for the group. Interns are promised three organic meals a day, made from farm produce whenever possible. Fridays are pizza and beer nights, with pizzas cooked in a handmade earth oven in the backyard. Other nights interns will gravitate to group activities like games, movies or swimming at the pond down the road. And at night, they bed down either in the farmhouse or the loft of the barn.
 
"We live and work and play together, and it's just this really interconnected thing you have to figure out," says Erin Throop, now in her second season as an intern. "The intensity of the work is a lot, but we definitely find this really intricate balance."
 
The work itself runs from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. during the work week, and 7:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday. In addition to working in the fields, interns are expected to take turns working Tantré's stand at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. The first month for a new intern is considered an orientation period, and from there he or she will gain more responsibility under the guidance of Andres, Lentz and returning crew members from the previous season. Andres says the work is "very self-directed," however; he'll lecture if he needs to, but it's not a staple of the internship. The program used to include more traditional training, Lentz says, but that "kind of fizzled out."
 
"It's a very informal kind of learning situation," she says. "It's hands-on, on-the-job kind of training, and it has a lot of extensions."
 
As a couple, Andres and Lentz's unique dynamic lies at the heart of the farm and the internship program. A former elementary teacher, she's warm, motherly and talkative. He's methodical, focused and dry, although the occasional bit of sly wit escapes from beneath what seem to be permanently arched eyebrows. 
 
"Their team is really amazing," Throop says. "Deb is really understanding and you can always go to her if you need to talk. Richard keeps things together on the farm, but he's become more a work partner than a boss."
 
It's hard for Lentz and Andres to pin down exactly when the internship program started, because they've had someone working and staying on the farm since its early days. But Andres had to do a considerable amount of work to turn the property into a farm in the first place. He bought the property in 1993 after several years working as a carpenter.
 
"My money started to pile up and I got tired of running around building other people's dreams," he says. "So I thought I would focus on my own dream, which was something like building a farm."
 
At that time, there were no outbuildings and no fruit trees in the backyard. Andres slowly developed the property, farming potatoes and other storage crops with Lentz after the two met in 1994. They grew organic potatoes and other storage crops until 2001, when they decided to make the farm a CSA. As they increased production for CSA members, Lentz says more hands were needed to keep up with the farm's organic growing practices, giving rise to the formal internship program.
 
"Because you're using less chemicals to control weeds and insects, there is some squishing and picking," she says. "So there is a lot of hard labor."
 
Interns come to the program from various backgrounds and for various reasons. Some are interested in food, some in farming; some are in a transitional period of life and looking for a unique experience. Lentz says ideal candidates include former farmers, landscapers and marching band members--people who can get hot and sweaty and keep working. If interns stick with the experience after the first month orientation, many end up returning for a second season or more. One such intern is Lizzy Olenzek, who started last year and is now doing wholesaling work for the farm this summer.
 
"I found it really empowering," Olenzek says. "Aside from how to grow things, I learned sort of an independent work skill set and some sort of self-reliance."
 
In the farm's early days, Lentz says, it was hard to find any workers at all, let alone interns. But that has changed. Now the farm receives 20-30 internship applicants per season, and Lentz and Andres use an interview process to make their picks. Asked why interest has surged so much over the years, Lentz rattles off a list of media sources, from authors Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry to Food Inc. and Time magazine, that have advocated for local, sustainable food over the last decade.
 
"I believe the movement has worked," she says. "Now there's young people who don't accept corporate society. They're looking for a lifestyle that is more sustaining—feel-good-inside sustaining." 
 
But in the midst of ongoing economic and environmental troubles, will the momentum itself be sustainable? Andres is willing to look on the bright side.
 
"I think you might see more of this kind of coming together, where the culture changes," he says. "We can either get freaked out and be motivated by fear, or we can try to do something altruistic."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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