With the sun shining down on his crops, Mike Nootebos grabs his wheelbarrow and heads to the fields for another batch of romaine.
“We cut them as we need them,” explains the owner of Mary’s Garden (pictured), a 20-acre farm at 15649 40th Ave. that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. “We go through so much we are replanting every two weeks throughout the season so there’s a constant supply.”
A tractor chugs in the background as it pulls a crate of spaghetti squash from the field to the parking lot, which is bustling with locals eager to pick up their grown-in-Surrey produce.
“What we’re producing, it’s intensive farming, really,” said Nootebos. “We pick stuff everyday. It doesn’t get stored in a box, it doesn’t get shipped anywhere. We keep it as fresh as we possibly can.”
Meanwhile, eight blocks away, Tap Restaurant exeuctive chef Mike Kott is busy finishing up the lunch rush. He’s cooking with produce he picked up from Mary’s the day before.
A loyal Mary’s shopper, Kott incorporates their products into his menu.
Squash. Carrots. Radishes. Swiss chard. Herbs.
Asked why he buys local, Kott quickly replies, “Taste.”
“There’s no comparison,” the chef remarked.
Tap Restaurant is one of seven Surrey restaurants participating in “Farm Fresh Sundays in September,” a project initiated by the City of Surrey as part of the inaugural Agriculture Week, intended to show off the estimated 475 farms that account for close to one-third of Surrey’s total land use.
The idea is simple: The restaurants agreed to design a menu featuring a minimum of two-thirds locally farmed ingredients.
For Kott, it was easy.
“We already do so much local already, it was easy to throw something together,” he explained.
For the Farm Fresh Sundays menu (though Tap is offering the menu on Tuesday because it’s closed Sundays), Kott is offering a roasted parsnip soup – parsnips from Mary’s, of course. Atop the soup will be bacon from Beast & Brine in Crescent Beach.
The main will be beef bourguignon served with glazed Mary’s radishes, Mary’s carrots, as well as potatoes and fresh herbs (pictured).
“So really nice and hearty, a lot of vegetables and stewed beef. We use Donia Farms (for our beef) which is three, four blocks away from us. They’re just across the highway,” said Kott. “We’re four blocks away from designated agricultural land. It’s super easy for us to buy local.”
Kott encouraged people to do the same at home.
“We try to raise awareness about how much is available locally. We’ve been trying to organize something with Mary’s where we take a bunch of lamb down there and have a big barbecue just to get people more aware of what’s around,” said Kott.“There’s so many great places in this area. And it’s so affordable. You’d be silly not to (buy local),” he added.
Just a short drive from Mary’s and Tap is Evergreen Herbs, on 184th Street between 40th and 32nd, which supplies produce to large stores like Safeway and Sobey’s, but also to Newton’s own Maharaja Restaurant – also participating in the September farm-to-table promotion.
“We’ve officially been around for 20 years,” said Evergreen Herbs owner Ron Brar. “We started out of our dad’s garage and we service all of Western Canada now. We do not just fresh herbs but exotic vegetables, edible flowers, multiple items with both greenhouses and field crops.”
Maharaja owner Naresh Sachdev said he’s excited to incorporate the local vegetables into his menu. He works hard to make his Indian food with minimal oils and fats in order to make it as healthy as possible. Using local produce plays a big part, he said.
“Using garlic from China, there’s no flavour,” remarked Sachdev. “It’s not going to help your body. The stuff we have locally is amazing. We have so many fresh vegetables. All of these things are healthier, and they’re healthier if you cook them the proper way.”
Sachdev said he’s on a mission to help make the community healthier – and he’s taking it one step beyond his restaurant.
“We actually have a farm in Surrey,” he revealed. “We are building a (4,000-square-foot) greenhouse ourselves” as well as a 10,000-square-foot kitchen.
The restaurateur has plans to grow his own tomatoes and herbs to turn into sauce and package it – both for use in his restaurant but also to sell to the public. He hopes to have it ready next year.
“Right now, I feel bad about what we see in the community. There’s too much deep-frying, garlic paste, people aren’t using fresh stuff. I like to use the old ways of cooking. So using better-than-average products and no oil to cook ginger, onions and garlic. We have a steam kettle so there’s no need to put any oil in. That’s how I want to help the community – by cooking them nice stuff,” he elaborated. “I want to take it one step further.”
Sachdev said he feels it’s his duty to help improve the health of those in his community.
“I’ll push people. Even if I have to sell at a low cost. We need to educate people,” he said. “If it’s simple for you to cook, you’ll do it.”
Surrey councillor Mike Starchuk spearheaded the farm-to-table pilot project, reaching out to the restaurants to take part.
“I was pretty pumped,” said Starchuk.
“It’s really not that hard to do. Surrey has so much to offer. You can get so much of your ingredients from Surrey, with the exception of flour and salt and pepper – the chicken, the vegetables, the eggs, the dairy, the beef, it can all come from Surrey.”
But unfortunately, Starchuk said much of Surrey’s agricultural property is not being used for its intended purpose.
“Right now there’s tremendous pressure for people to buy it and build a mansion on it – not necessarily to farm there,” he revealed.
Starchuk’s hope is the promotion will shed light on the importance of embracing Surrey’s farming roots.
“Maybe we can start changing the way that we eat at our restaurants, to start getting people to go to them asking, ‘Is this local?’”
It’s a question he began asking after learning what Surrey’s farming community has to offer. “It’s to the point where when I open my fridge, it’s more than likely come from a Surrey farm,” said Starchuk.
“Take corn, for example. There’s the catchphrase I like to use, local fresh frozen corn. You get it off the cob, put it into freezer bags, get air out of it and store it in the freezer. Do 30 packs of corn and you’ve got corn until corn is ready again.
“I just hope (this event) changes the way people think about the city,” he continued. “I hope it changes the way people think about the value of fresh food and supporting the local farmers and local restaurateurs. My hope is that the restaurants will be packed with people.”
Starchuk would like to one day see a restaurant offering 100 per cent of its menu from Surrey – even the beer.
“That’s a side joke for me,” he said, chuckling. “If you could grow hops then 100 per cent of your lunch could be from Surrey. I’m told there’s one in Cloverdale that’s setting up.”
Back at Mary’s, Nootebos says farming is getting harder and harder as the years go by.
“With the price of land, the price of fertilizers, seed – everything has gone up and the price of food really hasn’t followed,” Nootebos revealed.
“Locally, we grow so much food and it’s all ready in a short period of time and the price has to be lower for it to move, otherwise it’s wasted. And you’re competing with U.S. products. To keep these farms going and to keep existing, we need people to kind of go out of their way to buy local,” Nootebos added. “We have to work so much harder to maintain our customers because of all these big-box stores moving in. The Superstore just opened (in South Surrey) and it’s been slow (here) for the last few days.
“I can feel it.”
Participating in the inaugural Farm Fresh Sundays in September project is Old Surrey Restaurant (13483 72nd Ave.), Elements Casino (17755 60th Ave.), Maharaja Restaurant (8148 128th St.), Taphouse (15330 102A Ave.), Bozzini’s (13655 104th Ave), Royal Oak (15336 Fraser Hwy.) and Tap Restaurant (101-15350 34th Ave.). Visit Surrey.ca/farmfresh to see the full menus.
Meanwhile, other Surrey Agriculture Week events will take place at city hall, including a speakers forum on the local dairy industry (Sept. 16) and a “Pie in the Plaza” event (Sept. 17) which will include what’s being called “B.C.’s largest blueberry pie” Visit Surrey.ca/culture-recreation/20206.aspx.