by Katie Navarra
With a 115-acre organic operation, farm owners Richard Andres and Deb Lentz rely on help from interns and apprentices to tend the crops for their Chelsea, MI-based Tantré Farm. Individuals interested in honing sustainable agriculture practices live semi-communally on the farm.
The organic operation includes fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, flowers and livestock. The farm harvests and distributes year-round through CSA shares, restaurant orders and farmers market sales.
“It’s kind of a mixed operation of conservation land vegetables, pasture, hay fields, cows, big chickens, specialty crop varieties, tree crops and mushrooms,” Andres said. “We have a fruiting yard in our woods with about five acres of fruiting mushrooms.”
Andres and Lentz developed a robust application and internship program throughout the years and strongly believe in education, community and using teamwork to solve problems. They shared their advice for establishing a similar system during a virtual farm tour sponsored by the Michigan Farmers Market Association, a statewide member-based nonprofit. The organization works with more than 300 farmers markets.
Setting the stage
Nearly three decades ago, Andres started Tantré Farm as a homestead with an aspiration for adding native perennial tree crops and perennial berries. He spent eight years getting the farm up and running. The next step was committing to attending farm markets and starting a CSA.
“We just found in that time that we like to share this space with people and share the expenses and the labor with people out here on the land and give a greater sense of community for our own life,” he said. “We’ve always invited people here, either CSA members or customers, but also to share this space – you live here and share the food, share the harvest.”
The name Tantré was inspired by a mindfulness lecture given by Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Tantré is the name of a Vietnamese woman who as a child had an immediate understanding of the meaning of meditation and mindful practice without any instruction.
“That’s the basis of a lot of our work here, seeing our manual work as a chance to practice mindfulness – being in the present moment,” Andres said.
Rather than marketing their farm to the community, the couple view it as education. The farm is committed to educating the public about how to use food that may be less familiar. They offer cooking classes to help people learn how to taste real food again.
“We really celebrate the flavors of the richness that is in Michigan,” Lentz said. “Our emphasis is, ‘why not celebrate some of these local things that we grow that are nutritious and healthy and flavorful and teach people how to learn, how to enjoy them.’”
From the beginning, Andres has invited the community to be a part of the farm. Several neighbors are university professors, some who have brought students out for a few weeks for hands-on learning. The public has also been invited in for farm hikes and other in-person farm experiences.
“I like people getting excited and people who are wary and trying to help all of them have a relationship,” he said.
Establishing an application process
Over time, Andres and Lentz developed a three-page application. Some individuals also submit résumés, but they aren’t required.
Andres and Lentz prefer candidates to visit the farm for an interview. An in-person conversation allows the applicant to experience the farm vibe and get a sense if it is a place they would like to live and work. It also gives the couple an opportunity to learn more about the individual’s background. Phone interviews are used when someone lives too far from the farm for an initial conversation.
“It’s a lot of learning how to interact with and teaching people how to live together,” Lentz said. “My background is teaching so I say I have a lot of playground management.”
Whenever a person moves on from the program, Lentz and Andres hold an exit review. Lentz is especially interested in finding out what life skills the individual feels they gained from the program.
“To me, in some ways that’s a richer experience of the farming,” she said. “You can learn the basics of farming with a book or watch a YouTube video. It’s really what life skills you’re learning about problem solving, solving problems together or creating problems together that make the difference.”
Tips for success with interns & apprentices
Regardless of how much training you provide interns and apprentices, there will be mistakes. Instead of viewing them as problems, Andres and Lentz look at challenges as opportunities for growth. After a “problem” arises, the couple encourages an individual to reflect on what went wrong and how they may change their approach in the future.
A morning meeting starts each day, followed up with a weekly meeting they call reflection time. It’s a chance for the part-timers, volunteers and neighbors to share and discuss community concerns, according to Lentz.
Farming is a tough job and it can be easy for students to become discouraged. Put some time aside to celebrate the farm’s success. Andres and Lentz celebrate with their students and interns every Friday with a pizza night using ingredients grown on the farm. Celebrating with each other builds community and makes the value of their work tangible.
“Eating food is a big part of what we do. What we grow and sharing a meal, I think, is a way to pull together,” Andres said.