Every weekday at 9 a.m., Jason Austin waits to see how many volunteers will show up at his Central Saanich farm.
It doesn’t matter how many come really, just that those who do want to be there are ready to get their hands dirty. People used to think he was joking when he told them, “Only come when you want to.” But now, Austin said, they see the wisdom of it.
“Our volunteers are the nicest group of people you could ever hope to meet,” he said. “I want them to have fun when they are here and to realize just how much I value them.”
Austin is the owner of Gatton House Farm, a five-acre slice of fruit and vegetable-laden paradise devoted to donating all 20-plus-tons of its annual produce to Greater Victoria residents in need.
In an average week, he provides hundreds of crates of fresh produce to the Mustard Seed, Our Place, B.C. Housing and various other local organizations. Those agencies then distribute the food through food banks, kitchens, hampers and free food markets.
When the Mustard Seed arrives around 11 a.m. July 21, workers drop off 150 empty banana boxes and Jason Austin (left) and his volunteers load up 40 boxes full of romaine lettuce in exchange. The empty ones will quickly be filled with beans, swiss chard, zucchinis, bok choy, and the such, to be distributed to other organizations. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
All of this is volunteer powered.
Will Wild is the director of missions and community engagement at Glad Tidings Church on Quadra Street. Members of his church and others around the region make up the majority of Austin’s volunteers.
For Wild, it’s a win-win situation – the farm provides a perfect place for congregation members to serve and in return they get to see the glowing smiles on people’s faces when they’re given fresh produce at one of the church’s free markets. And, Austin never lets volunteers return home without something for themselves – a few juicy plums, an enormous zucchini or a lush head of lettuce.
“It’s just such a positive, warm place to be,” Wild says.
On a sunny Wednesday morning in July he and about 10 others – some from churches, some not – tend to various tasks around the farm.
“You can’t find this kind of lettuce at the grocery store,” Will Wild says as he harvests head after head, packs them into banana boxes and weighs them. His favourite part of volunteering comes later in the day when he gets to hand deliver the crisp greens to new Victoria residents in transitional housing. “It brings me great joy to be able to say to the people at the market ‘Hey, we just harvested this this morning’.” (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Bending lengths of chicken wire into arches, Philip Smith constructs trellises for beans to run their way up. Drawn to the work and the cause, Smith has been volunteering at the farm three days a week since March.
“It’s fun because there’s different stuff all the time and it’s outside and I’ve got a wonderful boss – don’t tell him I said that,” he says with a cheeky smile. “It may not be for everybody but I enjoy it.” (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Plucking beans off the trellis, Kathy English exclaims at the size of one and jokes it’s as big as a roast beef. She comes to volunteer two to three times a week and says she’s learned lots about gardening. “You learn to appreciate how difficult farming is,” she says. Overall, she says, it’s just a beautiful place to be. “Plus you get the added benefit of helping people with their food.” (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Josh and Miriam Columbus work to secure tents over some recently planted muskmelon (cantaloupe) to speed along their growing process. Miriam says she already has quite a bit of past gardening experience so she’s hoping to learn how to use some of the machinery, but for Josh the experience has been totally new. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
By noon the sun is high in the sky and the volunteers begin to head home. For Wild, it’s time to pack up the produce, collect some other donated foods from the Mustard Seed and head to The Cridge Centre for the Family to set up a mid-afternoon free food market.
Each week, approximately 25 people from the centre’s transitional housing show up to pick and choose what they want from the donated goods. The Gatton House Farm produce is far and beyond the freshest, since the majority of other foods have hit their best before date. Swiss chard, Wild says, is a market favourite.
As the Glad Tidings Church volunteers begin handing out food, it’s clear they’re providing more than just physical sustenance. They know almost everyone by name and make easy, upbeat conversation as people move down the line.
One woman is collecting a box of food for a family that just immigrated from Ethiopia and is quarantining. The volunteers load her up with produce, mango salsa, sour cream, orange juice and snacks. Another woman discusses how she’ll cook the enormous zucchinis being handed out from Austin’s farm.
“When they come here they always say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, we feel like we’re not alone. We feel like somebody loves me, somebody cares for us’,” Pastor Nilo Mariveles says.
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