FOCUS: Young farmers grow business in the heart of Newton (photos, video)

NEWTON - Doug Zaklan takes a drink of water on a hot Wednesday afternoon and surveys the land he's been farming for the past four years. It's harvest day at Zaklan Heritage Farm, and dozens of hens scramble around a penned area, not far from where Reverend the llama chews on lettuce grown in another area of the field. Carrots, beats, chard, kale, cabbage, garlic, onions, broccoli, tomatoes — it's all yielded from the approximately two acres of soil on this tree-lined property, owned by the Zaklan family since the 1920s.

"Some people have no idea this is here," Zaklan said as he walked near the hen house, part of an eight-acre oasis of agricultural goodness located off 84th Avenue and 132nd Street in Newton.

"When they come here, people are usually amazed that this farm is here — that's the most common reaction. People tell us, 'I've lived here my whole life and I had no idea this existed.'"

Over the decades, the land has been farmed in different ways, but the current use is probably the most ambitious. Zaklan, whose uncle George and aunt Evelyn continue to live on the property, began a revitalization project in 2011 that eventually involved a partnership with Gemma McNeill, a fellow former UBC Farm worker who shares Zaklan's passion for organic farming.

Today, McNeill and Zaklan live on the farm that keeps them busy during the growing season.

They sell their produce on the farm every Saturday from June to October, and they also bring goods to markets held elsewhere in the area, including Surrey Urban Farmers' Market on Wednesday afternoons.

"Right now," McNeill observed, "there seems to be more people aware of, and interest in and need for, having healthy local food, so I think we're kind of doing the right thing at the right time. We're coming in at that sort of sweet spot. We're working hard, because farming's not easy, but there's more of a demand now that previously didn't exist."

Zaklan nodded in agreement. "We're really trying to find out what the best way to farm this land is, and it's about kind of reinventing that and reassessing what works for the land and also what works for the market, and using technologies that didn't exist back in the day."

Now surrounded by industry and houses, the land looked much different 90 years ago when Dragan and Marta Zaklan first moved there to begin farming. Dynamite was used to clear massive tree stumps from the then-isolated piece of property, which was soon occupied by a single cow, vegetables, strawberries, chickens and geese. During the Great Depression, the couple's former "stump farm" sometimes served as a weekend-getaway spot for friends of theirs who continued to live in the city.

"I think it's an incredible feat for the family to have held on to this piece of property and maintained it for agricultural use for so long, for four generations," McNeill said. "It's really amazing now to have it accessible to the public and share it with people in our community — and also create a community. In Surrey, I think it's easy for (people) to feel separated and not connected to anything. In some ways, that's mainly what we're trying to do, connect people."

That connection is evident in the farm's CSA program, or Community Supported Agriculture. It's a partnership between program members who commit funding in the spring and farmers who provide them weekly boxes of produce throughout the growing season. Such programs are taking off across North America, guaranteeing farmers a market for their produce and also needed capital at the start of each season. Meanwhile, the consumer benefits by getting a regular supply of seasonal, farm-fresh produce.

Everyone wins, basically.

"With our CSA this summer, we're doing 40 families a week who get veggies from us, so they pick up from here on Fridays and Saturdays," McNeill explained.

At this farm, the fee for a full CSA membership is $500 for 19 weeks, with other, less expensive options available (see for info, or call 604-355-1061).

Up to 40 kinds of vegetables are grown on the Zaklan farm, including more than a hundred varieties of things — nine kinds of tomatoes in the hot house, for example, and five or six different types of cucumbers.

"That variety keeps things interesting for us and also for our CSA members," Zaklan added. "So every week, their box is changing — something different in them, with the season. In a way, I think those members like the variety, because it can be a challenge. It can be like, 'Oh, what did I get this week, and what can I make with it all?' They have a box of fresh veggies in their kitchen and they have to find a way to use it."

Weekly emails are sent to CSA members with a list of produce included the box, along with a recipe or two and other suggested uses.

"There's also solicited recipes on our Facebook page, a bit of community sharing of ideas of what to make," McNeill said. "People love that, those ideas. You have to be the right kind of person to get into that, and it's not for everybody, maybe, but our members seem to love it. They tell us that it forces them to eat lots of vegetables and that they look forward to that box every week."

(Story continues below video of Zaklan Heritage Farm on Shaw TV)


This Saturday evening (Aug. 15), 30 people will converge on the farm for a longtable dinner hosted by the One20, a pub located on 120th Street in North Delta.

The inaugural event — long sold out — is the brainchild of the establishment's executive chef, Ryan Praskey, in partnership with Delta-based Four Winds Brewery.

"We are wanting to up the ante with our food here, and we wanted to do a farm-totable event, and that farm is the perfect spot for it," Praskey told the Now.

"Me and Michael, the GM here, started going to farmers' markets in the area, so we grabbed some business cards and theirs was one of them," Praskey recalled. "The farm was so close to our (pub), it was amazing — just eight blocks away. We took a drive there to see what it was about and it's crazy, this farm in the middle of, like, a little industrial area. It's a beautiful farm where they're doing some awesome stuff."

Once or twice a week, Praskey buys baskets of produce from the farm for use at the pub, creating a strong community connection.

"It's fun for us to grow produce and have people get so excited about it, like Ryan from the One 20," McNeill enthused. "Like, he tastes the carrots and is amazed by how great they taste straight out of the soil, and he gets super excited, you know? And he's a professional, so it's really exciting to share that enthusiasm for it. And then he makes something amazing for us (to eat). It's that sharing that is exciting."

The farm has also hosted canning workshops this summer, and the fourth annual Zaklan Heritage Farm Harvest Festival is set to happen on Saturday, Aug. 22, starting at 5 p.m. The event is billed as a "fabulous night of community networking, eating and dancing;" guests are encouraged to bring a potluck dish to share with everyone and tour the farm.

For Zaklan and McNeill, such events can be useful to introduce people to the farm and also recruit volunteers — people like the "Chicken Friends," who help collect, wash and package eggs (email to get involved). Volunteers are welcomed during harvest times, too.

"We're a small business without much of a budget, so I started doing the markets four years ago while still learning how to grow," Zaklan recalled. "I was putting a lot of work into growing a few vegetables, so I set up the market thinking everybody was going to come buy these delicious vegetables - but nobody came, you know. And now, every market is just a little bit better than the one before it, so it's this kind of constant growth."

Like with most things, growth takes time.

"They say it takes three to five years to get a business off the ground, so we're kind of hitting that mark right now," McNeill said.

"It feels like something is happening here every week, so there's an energy, for sure."

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