In a light linen shirt the colour of sunflowers, Richmond’s Mary Gazetas winds her way between garden rows, touching kale leaves, picking green beans.

By The Vancouver ProvinceSeptember 7, 2008

In a light linen shirt the colour of sunflowers, Richmond’s Mary Gazetas winds her way between garden rows, touching kale leaves, picking green beans.

“Gardens like this are all about people and community-building,” says the 65-year-old grandmother.

Hers is no ordinary city garden. It’s an urban farm for the hungry: the Richmond Fruit Tree Sharing Farm in Terra Nova Rural Park.

Gazetas never wanted to be a farmer. She studied fine arts and was a City of Richmond arts festival planner for 16 years. She’s an artist, too, holding beach sculpture shows, teaching at Langara and publishing a book on her 30 years of kayak travel.

But her drive to help the hungry led her to expand her passions from arts to agriculture. After she retired in 2000, she saw a film about “gleaners” collecting unused food. Inspired by similar groups in Vancouver, Gazetas and her gardening friends began rescuing food that otherwise rotted in fields and delivering it to the needy, like horticultural Robin Hoods.

In 2003, they put down roots. They battled bad irrigation, rabbits and weeds to farm a half-acre and grew 270 kilograms of food. They now cultivate a 2.5-acre, volunteer-run fruit and vegetable farm on two lots.

From that seed of an idea has come a huge harvest: today the farm almost singlehandedly supplies the Richmond Food Bank with the bulk of its fresh produce.

As Gazetas leads the way through herb borders of thyme, tarragon and oregano, through aisles of green onions and beans, collard greens and cauliflower, she talks about what the farm means to her. She aims to do more than feed the hungry. She wants to contribute to food security, teach youth farming, help the environment by growing organically and foster community through volunteering.

“I want to show people how to do this. I am a great believer that all you need is a few other people to get it going,” says the project chair, who has dirt under her nails.

“We’re trying to lower our carbon footprint and support local growers, which is a huge part of any food security system.”

Above the treetops are signs of Richmond’s other major crop — acres of subdivisions, brown-shingled roofs baking in the sun. Planes fly overhead; so do white butterflies. But amid suburbia, the lush farm grows heavy with leeks, squash, carrots, beets and strawberries. In the greenhouses, tomatoes and cucumbers ripen. Garlic and camomile dry in sheds. A hazelnut orchard waits to be pruned, plums, apples and pears to be gleaned from local orchards.

“I never thought it would grow this big,” Gazetas says with wonder.

But it did. And it’s getting noticed. In 2001, the farm won a Richmond Volunteer Nova Star Award for Innovation and in 2002 it won a United Way Community Spirit Award.

Last year, Gazetas and the farm earned national attention when she was featured in Sun Chips’ “Start A Wave” ad campaign.

The campaign, launched in May 2007, promoted 10 “wavemakers” — three from B.C. — making change in their communities. Gazetas’ ad — seen in national magazines and on the back of Sun Chips bags — trumpeted the fact that in six years the farm had donated 40,000 kilograms (90,000 pounds) of food (that figure will be 50,000 this year).

The headline? “How Mary Gazetas Gained 90,000 Pounds in Six Years.” But the grandmother of two said she’s gained much more.

In a field of green, three university students kneel in the soil, working on harvesting beans and on the future of agriculture.

University of B.C. agriculture and ecology students Pearl Yip and Carissa Murphy and Shane McMillan of Kwantlen’s Institute of Sustainable Horticulture are working at the farm on a government program. They spend the day dropping beans into Richmond recycling boxes. The day before, they had delivered 500 kg of produce to the food bank. All three hope to make a living in farming — as the next generation of green growers.

“People are recognizing there’s a need for [urban agriculture],” McMillan says. “More people are interested in where food comes from and getting disgusted when they find what goes into [commercially grown food].”

Forget the 100-Mile Diet. These grass-roots gardeners want us to start eating even closer to home — our backyards. They’re pioneering hyper-local food production and a 10-Mile Diet, which means eating food originating no further than 10 miles (16 km) away.

Gazetas and the students tried it for10 days and it opened their eyes.

“When you start doing the 10-Mile Diet, you start really seeing what we have a need for locally, like grains,” Murphy says, “and you start thinking about food security.”

“Its a taste you just can’t imagine, it’s so fresh,” Gazetas says of eating from garden. “It’s the joy of knowing that I grew this.”

In the farm’s kitchen in a little red barn, Vancouver chef and cooking instructor Ian Lai is teaching an even younger generation — 500 Richmond schoolkids — the joys of local food though his Terra Nova School Yard Society. Lai calls it “growing tomorrow’s citizens.”

Many Richmond citizens volunteer to get their hands dirty here: 1,400 in 2006 alone.

They include the Greenhouse Social Club — seniors who meet twice weekly. Corporate volunteers include Telus, Microsoft and Deloitte and Touche. Recovering addicts from Turning Point built part of a shed recently.

Outreach co-ordinator Arzeena Hamir says it’s team-building via weeding, but also something more important.

“The larger impact we have is we open up people’s eyes to what can be grown. We have a lot of people who volunteer just so they can learn how to grow food,” says the Richmond mother of two, who grows tomatoes, garlic, potatoes and rhubarb in her yard.

“We’re a catalyst. People assume agriculture is dirty, it smells, but when they come to the farm they’re amazed how beautiful it is. We’re changing people’s perceptions.”

At the Richmond Food Bank, executive director Margaret Hewlett winds through a warehouse of dry goods: cases of canned soup, packages of noodles, bags of bread.

There isn’t much fresh food. But then she rolls a huge pallet out of a walk-in refrigerator to reveal boxes of beets, squash, red and green cabbage, snow peas and cucumbers.

“This has made all the difference,’ she says of the farm’s donation.

“Not only does it help with our food-purchasing budget, because in the summer months we don’t need to buy much, it’s also local, fresh produce, so it’s the healthiest vegetable and fruit one can eat.”

Hewlett says the bank feeds between 300 and 350 households each week — more than 700 people — and distributes 6,800 kg of food each week. But it’s not all they do.

As a result of the farm partnership, the food bank is teaching gardening to its clients.

“We’ve got container-growing workshops happening. We have seeds going home in pots. We’re encouraging gardening in small spaces, on balconies, on patios,” Hewlett says.

This summer, the food bank and the Richmond Food Security Task Force started a farmer’s market project — four “pocket markets” to help make local produce available in low-income areas — another way to increase the city’s food security.

Richmond park planner Yvonne Stich says the city supports the farm wholeheartedly.

“A major component is social responsibility and sustainability. Not only are they producing food for the food bank, they’re providing educational programs. To have public park land in a city used for farming is unique. We’ve won a number of awards.”

Kent Mullinix of Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture says we’re at a pivotal point in the future of food. News headlines trumpet the waning of oil reserves, degradation of the environment, the problem of additives in commercially grown foods and the world’s climbing food prices. The news is fuelling a shift towards local, regional food production, he says, whether we like it or not.

“With the rise in the value of oil and the fact that our agrifood system is entirely dependent upon fossil fuels, we are going to see food prices rise and rise and rise. The economics of our agrifood system are going to shift tremendously, resulting in an economic advantage for local, regional food systems.”

Canada lags behind other nations in readying its local food supply for global shifts. Cuba’s seen as a leader in organic intensive farming, as it was cut off from fertilizers and pesticides for years. But here at home, the horticulture professor says, projects like the Richmond farm point to the future.

“It’s about community. That’s a big element of sustainable agriculture,” he says. “We have the technological answers and wealth to do this. It really revolves around how do we organize to do this?”

Back at the farm, Gazetas is also looking to the future. An orchard of 144 trees planted on their one-acre Gilbert Road plot in May should yield 9,000 kg of Gala, Granny Smith, Liberty and Spartan apples in five years.

The farm is also weaning itself off grants and selling flowers and herbs to help finance operations. It hopes to establish a teaching farm. And Gazetas wants to grow something different next year — a book about her work. She hopes it will seed more urban farming.

“You don’t need a lot of land to grow food,” she says. “Everyone could be doing this in their backyards. They really could.”

E-mail reporter Elaine O’Connor at

Join the Green Team:

• Richmond residents who have surplus crops can contact email or visit

• Volunteer summer hours are: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and on Wednesdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

• Seniors who want to join the Greenhouse Social Club can call or e-mail

Act Global, Eat Local:

Here are resources to help chose local, organic, sustainable produce.

Sow Seeds:

The Fruit Tree Sharing Farm isn’t the only urban agriculture program getting growing in the Lower Mainland. Among the top of the crop:

• Richmond’s Terra Nova School Yard Society is a non-profit, community urban agriculture project founded at the Terra Nova farm site in 2006 by Chef Ian Lai, an instructor at Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver. In the program, students plant and learn about food cultivation.

• Vancouver’s Farm Folk City Folk non-profit has been advocating for local food for 14 years and holds fundraisers with B.C. cuisine. or

• City Farmer an urban agriculture group now in its 30th year, runs a compost demonstration farm on Maple Street on CN Rail lands in Kitsilano.

• The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project has been gleaning unwanted fruit from city trees and gardens since 1999 and welcomes volunteers.

• North Vancouver’s Edible Garden Project sees home gardeners donate a portion of their harvest or land to cultivate to feed others.

Further Afield:

• Nelson’s Fruit Tree Project was founded in 1998 and offers free picking in exchange for two-thirds of the fruit shard between pickers and non-profit community groups.

• Victoria’s LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project was founded in 2000. In recent years its picked 30,000 pounds of fruit.

• Seattle’s Lettuce Link has been gardening for the poor for 20 years and in 2006 donated In 2006, over 30,000 pounds of food.

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