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Surrey's little farm with big dreams

Carefully buttoning up his custom-made Indian suit in the foyer of Surrey's city hall, Jas Singh reveals he's planning a "strip tease" for the Dragon's Den TV show audition taking place a few steps away.

Underneath the suit is his familiar brown overalls and yellow t-shirt, the kind of apparel he'd wear every day while on his South Surrey farm where he grows crops for the Lower Mainland's neediest.

Singh is planning to pitch the Dragons a 10-year investment into God's Little Acre Farm to purchase equipment that will help produce even more food for the poor. Having started with just three acres of land in 2011, the farm has since expanded to 70 acres

and is growing so rapidly that he needs help from entrepreneurs in areas such as distribution.

"I'm ready for them," he says, grinning from below a brown wide-brimmed hat. "I've thought it over and I'm not willing to give up too much of the farm as long we don't lose too much of the vision."

Singh says he thinks the Dragons will be attracted to the "grassroots" movement of his farm, whose purpose is to do charitable work by using the sweat equity of volunteers. Put simply, he says his business is charity.

Although technically not a non-profit, it's hard to argue God's Little Acre doesn't act like one. In the past four years of farming, Singh claims it has

donated 420,000 pounds of food to food banks, schools, food markets, shelters and dozens of other agencies.

Singh has used an on-site farmers market and seasonal fundraising events - such as the winter skating rink when it gets cold enough to freeze - to make the enterprise self-sustainable. Recently, he reached out to a crowdfunding website to raise $50,000 for a tractor. Dragon's Den is the next level in his charitable enterprise.

"We've outgrown the garden phase and the small farm phase and now we need to get into the big league if we want to make an impact on poverty," says Singh.

Born to Punjabi immigrants in Canada, the 49-yearold Singh grew up on a farm about a mile from God's Little Acre. He started working on the family tractor at the age of eight, learning a great deal about crops from his grandfather.

"While I hated it at the time and it was a lot of work this is my reward," says Singh, recalling the chores of a farm boy. "Having the education and the knowledge of how to farm. That knowledge has been lost in the generation gap and we need to bring that back."

When he was a kid, his neighbours were all farmers and grew their own food each year. When you needed something you couldn't grow yourself, you'd get into the car once every few weeks and head to the store.

"We used to have one store from our farm all the way to Whalley there was one shopping store. And you'd go on gravel roads."

The farms have since dwindled as developers have pushed ever southward from the north. That trend worries Singh, who estimates that if the borders were to close tomorrow the grocery shelves would be bare in about two days.

"It's sad in a way because for food security we should have kept all that land. And what's happened now is we're very insecure with our food supply and we're very dependent on other countries."

In the 1940s, Surrey residents consumed 90 per cent of what is produced locally. Today, that number has dropped to about four per cent. Singh says Surrey needs to put policies put in place to secure the remaining agricultural land before it's lost forever.

God's Little Acre, located at 16582 40th Ave., is one way of leading by example, trying to show that large scale organic farming can feed not just the local population but the poorest segments of society as well.

"You just get to a point in your life where you want to do something that matters and I didn't want to wait until I was 65 to do that," says Singh, who worked 20 years as a private investigator prior to becoming a farmer. "So I just decided to try to do it earlier and see how it works out. And it's worked out great."

When he started out in 2011, Singh says he decided not to wait until he started making a profit, giving away to food banks and other charities right away. He figures that actually helped his farm grow even faster because the public appreciated the donations so much that hundreds of people have since volunteered to help his cause.

BLACKLISTED BY FOOD BANKS Singh says he has resisted calls to become a registered charity because he wants to maintain full control over the vision of his business. And although he insists he puts everything he earns back into growing food for the needy, he's run afoul of institutionalized food charities by not joining the ranks of the non-profit sector.

In an open letter posted by Laura Lansink, executive director of Food Banks BC, the 96 member food banks across the province have boycotted God's Little Acre over a number of concerns she alleges have not been addressed.

Those concerns include alleged requests for "seed money" by Singh in the amount of between $2,000 and $5,000. Although the food banks were promised more in harvest than the investment, Lansink said that did not happen.

The reasons given included: flooding, freezing, drought, rotting and lack of harvesters or harvesting equipment.

Lansink also cited poor food quality deemed "unfit for human consumption" and said the Surrey Food Bank had to pay for the disposal costs of the spoiled food.

Another concern is the volunteer labour on the farm, including members from the food banks who worked to harvest the crops produced for donation.

"Prior to 2014, some food bank members provided God's Little Acre with volunteers from their organizations to work on the farm, with the understanding that the

produce they helped to grow would be delivered to the food banks who had supplied the volunteer labour," said Lansink. "In some cases volunteers complained that the crops they had assisted with in fact were sold for profit instead of being donated to their food bank, as had been promised."

Tim Baillie, president of the Surrey Food Bank, said the donated vegetables often created more work than they were worth. And when Singh didn't respond to a request for a business plan, he said the food bank was uncomfortable about the business.

"We really make sure that what we do is accountable and everything," said Baillie in a phone interview.

"So we wanted to make sure that if were going to form a formal relationship with anyone that they go through the same test."

Baillie said the food bank maintains relationships with other farmers and haven't been sent expired food. He maintains it took four volunteers six hours to sift through a crate of donated cucumbers that were ultimately inedible.

But the work had to be done to ensure a high quality of produce for food bank customers.

"We're accountable for the food that goes out," said Baillie, who conferred with the Surrey Food Bank board of directors on what direction to take with God's Little Acre.

The board was reportedly concerned that by not registering as a charity, the food bank would

ultimately have little oversight for God's Little Acre.

"We make sure that every dollar that is donated to the food bank is accounted for. And when I asked that of Jas and I asked to meet the chair of his board, we got nothing."

If something untoward occurs with Singh's business, Baillie said their association together could create a negative image for both.

Lansink also cited concerns over donor support going to God's Little Acre under the belief it would benefit the food banks, as well as the lack of charitable status of the farm meaning those donors would not get approved tax receipts.

"Food Banks BC and its members have one vision: a hunger-free future for every community," said Lansink. "We welcome any and all organizations who seek to work alongside us to fulfill our vision, including the principle of God's Little Acre. At the same time we must always ensure that all actions taken and all monies expended are done so with integrity and complete transparency. This must be the cornerstone of any charitable endeavour."

But Singh says he's been upfront with his volunteers and food recipients about where the money comes from and what he's doing with it. In the first three years of the

operation he used proceeds from driving transport trucks in order to fund the farm, while earning just $50,000 from the farm in all four years of its existence.

Singh insists that the food quality issue was due to one shipment of cucumbers he says was never supposed to go to the Surrey Food Bank in the first place. He claims his farm was blacklisted by the food bank after that mistaken shipment but that it doesn't reflect the quality of his produce.

According to his records, Singh says God's Little Acre donated 62,000 pounds of potatoes to the Surrey Food Bank in 2011, followed by 70,000 pounds of produce in 2012 that was distributed to a number of regional food banks.

"If my stuff was really crap do you really think thousands of people would continue to come and pick crap?" A list of more than 30 food-donation recipients provided to the Now includes Nightshift Street Ministry, Muslim Food Bank and Johnston Heights Church soup kitchen.

Singh also points out that Vancouver Food Bank buys produce from his farm every month and has never complained about the quality.

Despite the letter from Lansink, Singh says he just wants the food banks to take his produce. He's setting aside 100,000 pounds for the food banks this season and says they're welcome to come and pick it up. When asked why he thinks Food Banks BC wrote the open letter he says it's because the rumours he was cut off by the Surrey Food Bank were already an open secret in the community.

"Quit playing politics. They should just do the job they're supposed to be doing."

'GOD'S LITTLE ARMY' SET TO RALLY Although Singh may be the face of God's Little Acre, he says there are dozens of people behind the scenes who believe in his vision and help keep the farm going. There are also hundreds of volunteers who come to help weed and seed and carry out other duties.

His Facebook page, which he calls "God's Little Army" has responded to the Food Banks BC letter by planning a rally in support of the farm this Saturday at 11 a.m. Singh says people who are struggling to make ends meet can show up at his farm and he will give them food for free. Although he'll also give them the option to work for it by going into the fields and digging it up for themselves.

It's just one of the ways that Singh offers people a hand up and not necessarily just a hand out.

"I think it lifts their spirits," he says. "They feel good about what they're doing and when they come out with a handful of food from the field they actually have a big smile on their face."