With some help from the neighbours – and a little divine intervention – a former corporate man turned farmer has been able to cultivate a defunct farm into a thriving 3.5-acre crop of potatoes that will help feed Surrey’s hungry.
“This is more than a donation, this is a project of love,” said Marilyn Herrmann, executive director of the Surrey Food Bank.
On Aug. 18, standing in a gravel parking lot at God’s Little Acre farm at 16582 40 Ave., a visibly moved Herrmann spoke to media, invited guests and community partners about the generosity of of the project’s founder, Jas Singh.
“We want you to hang this somewhere where the whole world can see it,” said Herrmann, revealing a framed, official certificate of appreciation from the Surrey Food Bank (SFB).
It was approximately one year ago that Singh approached the food bank and told them of his plan. He wanted to cultivate a crop on donated land and provide the produce to the SFB.
Herrmann was convinced that was the last time she would see Singh.
“We have never had a donation like this before,” she said.
Then, this past spring, the hypothetical potato garden was brought up in conversation at a non-food bank committee meeting that Herrmann was at. Some of the committee members were helping plant the spuds.
“I thought, ‘this is really going to happen’,” recalled Herrmann.
At the farm’s unveiling, Singh was sporting dusty jeans, a burgundy rugby shirt, fatigued work boots and a retro Canucks cap. He shied away from the rolling cameras, saying this day wasn’t about him.
“The story is really about the food bank and people that are hungry,” says Singh. “We are all a big chain here and everybody is a link.”
The young farmer recently left the corporate world for a more meaningful calling. He put $6,000 of his own money into the food bank project.
Last fall, Singh drove around the farmlands of Cloverdale searching for a plot to grow his potatoes. He came across a “for lease” sign on a 30-acre parcel of land on 40 Avenue that was once a full-fledged chicken farm.
The owners – Gurmeet Gill, and brothers Manjinder and Narinder Johal – had bought the farm in 2006, but it had been sitting vacant for quite some time. When Singh told them of his intention for a food bank farm, the owners got on board.
“I talked to my partners and they said it’s a really good idea, so they decided to give him a free lease,” said Gill.
They own another farm next door that they are also considering donating for charity use.
W & A Farms offered seed potatoes; meanwhile, Mary’s Garden, a neighbouring farm on 40 Avenue, contributed harvesting equipment.
When it came time to plant the potatoes, volunteers from the community were aplenty. Jana Jackson and Leonard Humchitt’s and their children – Lyle, 11; Brooklyn, 7; and Analia, 5 – were among the helpers.
They came across Singh’s posting for a truck on craigslist. The young family had just moved to Surrey from Bella Bella and was eager to help out at God’s Little Acre.
“I thought it was a really good cause,” said Jackson. “Bella Bella is a small community that is isolated,” she continued. “This is what we do – help people in their time of need.”
Surrey’s acting mayor Coun. Judy Villeneuve called the whole story “fabulous.”
“Surrey is trying to build a city with a heart, and I think that you are part of that pulsing heart,” she said in acknowledging Singh.
She also spoke of the Surrey Food Bank’s staggering numbers.
“There are 15,000 people a month that access the Surrey Food Bank, and 45 per cent of them are families with children,” she said. “And there is more of a need now.”
Singh’s 3.5 acres will yield between 30,000 to 50,000 pounds of potatoes annually. The Surrey Food Bank will allot five pounds of potatoes per household – enough to feed 250 families a day.
Potatoes are a valuable item for the food bank. They are a staple food that can be incorporated into most diets and spuds keep well.
After the accolades, it was time for the first gleaning, so Singh fired up the harvesting machine.
“(The potatoes) are actually still growing,” he said. “They are just going to keep growing because the plants are still healthy.”
The vitality of the crops took Singh by surprise.
“When you start working on new land you have to be wary of wireworms,” he explained.
Somehow, the wireworms were kept at bay around perimeter of the crops.
There were also times when it appeared a drought was imminent. Then the rains came.
“God’s Little Acre is totally a faith-based project,” said Singh with a smile.
He then headed off to box up his first 3,000-pound donation for the Surrey Food Bank.