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Formed in 2011, the Washtenaw Food Hub in Ann Arbor, Michigan acts as a central point of gathering for local food commerce. The hub provides a physical space for local growers and food businesses to conduct purchasing, processing, aggregation, storage, and distribution. Businesses who are a part of the food hub are required to source produce from local farms. This innovation serves as an important link in Michigan’s local food ecosystem. Washtenaw Food Hub effectively closes the loop, connecting small businesses with year-round resources to sustainably grow.
Ann Arbor is already relatively green. The city’s residents have a great relationship with local food growers and producers: this can be seen during a walk through the quaint University town on a summer day. Streets are crowded with farm-to-table restaurants, artisan shops, and a bustling farmer’s market.
Yet, after many years servicing the market as a farmer and resident philosopher, Richard Andres knew that community members could have something different, something they did not know they could have.
When is the last time you visited the field where your food was grown? Or shook the hand of the farmer who grew it? Or felt an ounce of connection to the land it came from? Probably not lately. Industrial food systems strip us of this sort of connection. The current system makes it hard for us to learn about our food’s journey beyond the supermarket shelf.
Enter the Washtenaw Food Hub. A 16-acre site just north of Ann Arbor, Michigan that offers facilities and services to help triple bottom line farm and food businesses thrive. This model for regional sustainability and self-sufficiency functions to change the way local residents interact with food, farmers, and the land.
Farmer and teacher Deb Lentz reflects, “Pride and ownership in farms has been taken away. Coming to a farm is special. Eating and sustenance are important parts of life. Committing to sustainable food and land practices provides people, especially kids, with the opportunity to have a healthy start to life”.
An example of what is included in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share: produce from Tantré Farm and value-added goods from businesses at the Washtenaw Food Hub
Cultivating local food communities is nothing new for owner/operators Deb Lentz and Richard Andres. They have been busy running Tantré Organic Farm since 1993, long before the Washtenaw Food Hub came about. Tantre Farm boasts one of the largest and first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in Michigan. This means that Lentz and Andres sell their produce directly to the community. The CSA model is like a subscription box service. Tantré’s CSA members pay in at the beginning of the season then pick up a box full of produce each week based on what is in season and ready to harvest. Not only do members receive organic food, but they also become part of the farm’s community. Members are given ample opportunities to participate in the bounty of Tantré through you-pick berries and flowers, work parties, farm tours, and cooking classes, to name a few. This approach is also beneficial to the farmer. Having a sizable flow of income at the beginning of the season from CSA memberships allows for upfront investments in seeds, equipment, and labor.
It is inspiring that after so many years of innovation in this space, Lentz and Andres thought, “We can do more,” and they dug their heels even deeper. Andres identified the need for a food hub after talking with community members and fellow food businesses at farmers' markets. As a collective, they realized that aside from the one or two days when the farmer's market was held, the community lacked opportunities to consistently connect local growers to consumers and operative resources.
In true Deb and Richard fashion, the beginnings of the food hub were hashed out around a table with lots of food to share. They hosted a potluck for community members that included other organic growers, food service providers, project managers, and real estate professionals. In taking on this project, they knew that like Tantré Farm, the food hub was not individualized. Rather, it would belong to and provide benefit to a diverse community of stakeholders. The ownership and responsibility would be shared from the very beginning.
After careful planning and establishing partnerships, the motivation and purpose became clear. The Washtenaw Food Hub would be a community of co-located triple bottom line farm and food businesses working together to grow a healthy local food ecosystem.
The Washtenaw Food Hub serves as one of Tantré Farm’s CSA share pick up locations and hosts other CSA programs as well. Members can pick up their shares at the food hub, Tantré Farm, local farmers' markets, or other partnered agri-businesses. Many members are young families with small children that build CSA pickup into their weekly routine. When asked about her peak experience in running her businesses, Deb describes the shrieks of joy emitted by children opening their produce boxes like presents. They examine the contents like found treasure before running off to feed chickens or water their carrots in the kid garden. It is wonderfully satisfying to know that the rewards of her business’s hard work will nourish these kids’ little bellies.
Education is also a key tenet of Tantré Farm and the next step for the Washtenaw Food Hub. As a board member of The Agrarian Adventure, Deb teaches children about where food comes from in the classroom and onsite where the growing is done. She hopes to develop educational programs and demonstration projects to engage the community at the food hub’s event space. Tantré Farm also offers internships for those looking to learn about sustainable agriculture through real-life experience.
The business case for the Washtenaw Food Hub is strong. Its operations stimulate the local economy and create jobs. Not only do Lentz and Andres’ benefit, so does the ecosystem of other local farmers and value-added food producers. Having the food hub has diversified its revenue streams. They rent out commercial kitchens to small businesses that need space to transform local foods into value-added products like baked goods, prepared meals, and fermented foods.
There is also a great deal of symbiosis that is practiced between the food hub’s businesses. For example, The Brinery, a food business specializing in naturally fermented local vegetables, is headquartered at the Washtenaw Food Hub. The Brinery uses Tantré Farm’s cabbage to make sauerkraut. They also sell their packaged fermented foods back to Tantré to use in their CSA shares. This practice of buying, selling, and supporting one another’s outputs may be novel to an outsider, but it is standard practice within the hub.
To this end, the Washtenaw Food Hub catalyzes industry innovation and builds out infrastructure for the next generation of local farmers and food producers. It is important to note that the Washtenaw Food Hub, along with all their constituents, does not carry even a whiff of pretentiousness. If anything, the people there are unaware or too busy, to acknowledge how disruptive their business model is. These people operate on principle and practical nature. They do right by one another in business, for the planet, and for the community- simply because it makes sense.
One of the first things you may notice if you visit the Washtenaw Food Hub is a 164,000-watt solar array. Excess energy from the panels are exchanged for electricity credits with the municipality. Those panels, along with geothermal lines which aid in heating and cooling, create a closed loop energy system. This means that most of the time, the energy used at the food hub is sourced from its own solar panels and geothermal lines. Of course, composting and recycling are practiced as well. All these efforts contribute to the aim of zero waste.
A key feature of the Washtenaw Food Hub is its location. Lentz and Andres chose land nestled within a land preservation program called the Ann Arbor Greenbelt. These 5,060 acres of farmland and open space around Ann Arbor are protected to build vibrant blocks of farmland and preserve land along the Huron River. When constructing the food hub's built spaces, they sought to refurbish existing structures and respect the work of the farmers who had owned the land before them.
The Washtenaw Food Hub is, and continues to be, a labor of love for Lentz and Andres. What is Deb Lentz’s advice to young people who are really devoted to becoming sustainable farmers? “Do your homework and pay attention to the cause and effect of all your actions. Save money by starting small, keep another job to pay the bills in the beginning. There are a lot of risks in farming, but there are always new adventures. To be sustainable, don’t forget to take care of yourself and your health because your business will require a lot of your time. If you do this, your business will evolve.”
Deb Lentz, Educator, Farmer, & Organizer
Washtenaw Food Hub grows a healthy local food ecosystem by developing facilities and services to help co-located food and farm businesses thrive.