IT'S PAST NOON on a Wednesday in the off-season at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Against the gray sky, the jewel-toned produce at the White Lotus stand glows.
“We’re a little picked over right now,” apologizes Miriam Rahl with a smile. She’s the farm’s office manager, doing double duty as the vendor for the day. Even so, customers are still lined up. A mom offers her stroller-bound child a nibble of chevre from the sample table; another buyer points to a deep golden, cranberry-studded loaf of bread in a glass-fronted case behind Rahl.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the farmers market operates through the winter,” says Rahl. “One of our most important missions is to serve the community, and we’re thrilled that we can do it all year long.” From May to November, wares are sold at a cart at the farm on western Liberty Road. Argus Farm Stop at 325 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor is another option.
Built on a property owned for decades by the Tsomo family of Ann Arbor, White Lotus Farms began in earnest in 2008. Drawn from many different walks of life and locations, the Buddhist community united around the leadership of Traktung Rinpoche, dedicating themselves and the farm to the common goal of Right Livelihood.
That means “the eight ways a Buddhist should live a virtuous life,” says B. Love Davis, the gardens manager and a former curator in the American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Our goals are to provide a nourishing, beautiful service to the community. We want to care for the land, animals and all living creatures. It’s about interacting with the community and growing things in a compassionate, wise way.”
That translates to a dedication to cutting edge farming techniques and experimentation, including biocharring, a technique for introducing more carbon into the soil. Starry Skies Equine Rescue and Sanctuary, just down Liberty Road from White Lotus, gives the farmers manure that gets worked into vegetable growing areas to create a rich, black mixture that the crops love. But using the manure, and other materials that include fish emulsion, diatomaceous earth and kelp, is one reason that White Lotus is not yet certified organic.
Many of the techniques the crew has found most efficacious aren’t allowed in the stringent code required for the designation, which head cheesemaker Kat Tsomo notes tends to be aimed at farms on a much larger scale.
“We have some crew members looking into organic, and we’ll see where it goes,” says Davis. “But it takes a lot of time.” Until and if certification occurs, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides are now or will ever be used on the farm. The milk is antibiotic and hormone free, and chickens are pasture raised. “Happy chickens make the best-tasting eggs,” says Tsomo.
Meanwhile, White Lotus produce thrives, including heirloom varieties of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, garlic and greens.
“We just discovered Shishido peppers from Japan,” says Rahl. “The flavor and color are incredible, and once people tried them we began to get a lot of requests.” Demand for the community’s bread and pastry has allowed for construction of a new bakery, headed up by Trinle Tsomo, Kat’s husband. He learned his craft at Zingerman’s Bakehouse and continues to study from world-renowned artisans, calling the bread at Tartine in San Francisco “the best I’ve ever had.”
Recent partnerships with The Jolly Pumpkin and The Raven’s Club have put White Lotus breads on restaurant tables. “As Buddhists, we believe that the care for living things extends even to the starters and yeast cultures,” says Trinle.
Bigger creatures that benefit from White Lotus love include the registered Nigerian dwarf goats in the milking herd. Thanks to them, Kat Tsomo and her team produce a variety of melt-in-your-mouth chevres with flavorings that include New England rose and herbs de Provence, the latter featuring lavender grown on the property. Crottin—a semi-soft bloomy rind cheese—and feta round out the selections. In season, on the last Saturday of each month, kids pet and feed the goats; adults are the ones who want to help milk them.
Sharing those simple pleasures—of getting close to the source of food and immersion in the beauty of nature—is one of the main reasons White Lotus exists.
“There’s a misperception that Buddhists are all about detachment,” says Davis. “Our goal is to be as engaged in the community and the world as possible. We’re passionate about what is true, what is good and what is beautiful.”
In fact, visitors immediately notice the community’s dedication to aesthetics. Members live in an elegant Victorian farmhouse with a sweeping porch; abstract art canvases by Trinle’s mother grace the interior walls. Gardens and carefully maintained natural spaces throughout the property feature sculpture by local artists.
No one denies that the work is difficult at times, but Davis says that “love and the vision of our teachers get us through the tough parts.” Throughout all their experiences, community members express tremendous gratitude. “I feel blessed and grateful to be doing this work,” says Trinle. “It’s an extension of our spiritual life.” That philosophy is embraced by everyone at White Lotus.