‘Total optimism’ as Sumas Prairie’s littlest farms rebuild

A diverse and growing community institution looks to move on, after November’s disaster

By Tyler Olsen | April 28, 2022 |5:00 am

The Fraser Valley’s littlest farms are tended by townhouse dwellers and apartment denizens, children and seniors, widowed women and divorced men, as well as immigrants and people with roots around the world.

Maybe they aren’t precisely farms—at least in the traditional sense of the term. The little farms are actually 166 garden plots situated on the edge of Sumas Prairie. But the bounty is real, with gardners harvesting food, flowers, relationships, and memories.

November’s flood upended that. But spring is here and optimism and hope is returning to one of the valley’s community treasures.

Growing a community

The garden first sprouted in 2008. It was small at the time: a series of plots on a small rectangle of city-owned farmland off of Delair Road.

Many of the first gardeners worked just across the road at the Animal Health Centre, the Ministry of Agriculture’s main veterinary laboratory. A non-profit was created to manage the garden and, over time, new people from a range of backgrounds found a place to plant their seeds and grow roots. Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley were densifying, with more people living in homes with smaller (or no) yards. The cost of land rose. The cost of food rose. But the fee for a plot at the community garden was, and is still, less than a steak at a restaurant. And so a community grew.

Dr. Jane Pritchard, who recently completed a term as the garden’s president and is now its liaison with the city, said the garden’s members are a diverse lot, and the food they grow reflects that.

“There are very young families, and a lot of small children under five that run around, and young couples, and retired people,” Pritchard said. “There’s a lot of divorced, widowed, single women and divorced/widowed single men, it seems, although it certainly isn’t a social club.”

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Pritchard joined around 2010 while working in the Animal Health Centre. (From 2013 until her retirement in 2020, Pritchard served as the province’s chief veterinary officer—essentially the animal health version of Dr. Bonnie Henry.)

She said the garden has a sizable contingent of members with roots in Asia and Africa who grow vegetables and gourds they can’t always get in stores. Giant watermelon-sized cucumbers are common, as are squash, leafy greens, and other vegetables that are hard to obtain in Canadian stores. Some members grow the food they remember from the places they grew up. Others grow species that seem different just to try something new.

“It’s always fascinating every year to walk up and down the plots and see what other people are growing,” Pritchard said, “Most people are in a townhouse or an apartment where they have no garden … and they are growing things that take them home.”

The garden becomes a place where you brush up against other people, meet neighbours, and get outdoors. Gardeners, Pritchard said, “get a shared experience. Everybody talks about how their crops are doing, and wants to know if anybody else has a tip, and that sort of thing.”

NNovember's flood left debris strewn around the Abbotsford Community Garden. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com
NNovember’s flood left debris strewn around the Abbotsford Community Garden. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com

The flood

The gardens aren’t just tilled soil beds. Over the years, men, women and children erected fences to keep out the bunnies. They built lattices to allow climbing vines and vegetables to grow. They tended potted plants. They stored tools on their little pieces of property. The flood disturbed much, but not all, of that, with the swirling currents created strange patterns of damage.

In the garden, some plots escaped mostly undamaged. Others were left unrecognizable, the 60 feet of fencing that protected them gone.

“Most people have a fence…made out of four-by-fours and two-by-fours and heavy wire and all the rest of it, and they’re 300 metres away, intact, just gone, or piled on top of somebody else’s garden,” Pritchard said.

The area was left strewn with various debris. Photos showed tangles of wood, wire, and metal. Nearby, a greenhouse operated by the city sustained severe damage and will likely need to be torn down.

For months, gardeners could only look at the scene from the roadside, with members told not to enter the property. There was anxiety in waiting, but also understanding, given the greater impacts felt by others in the region.

“We were lower on the priority [list], as we should have been,” said Pritchard.

Recently, though, things are looking up and the anxiety is receding into the past. The garden’s soil was tested and came back clean.

Gardeners recently were able to begin cleaning up debris.. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com
Gardeners recently were able to begin cleaning up debris.. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com

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On a recent Friday, garden members got their first chance to enter the property and start putting their community back together. The city gave the gardeners about a month to clean up the site and get it back in shape. (For safety reasons, there is a supervisor on site and rules that govern who can access the property and under what conditions. Pritchard said the City of Abbotsford have been good landlords throughout.) It’s still unclear when, exactly, the 2022 growing season will start. But Prichard says seeds will be planted and new crops will grow.

There is even some harvesting underway: garlic planted before the flood has begun to sprout.

While members work to clean up, and amid uncertainty as to when planting will actually start, the garden won’t be welcoming new members this year. But Pritchard says new gardeners will be welcomed again in 2023. The fee for a small 10-by-10 plot is appropriately $10. A larger plot costs slightly more. You also have to give three hours of your time. It takes a community, after all, to raise a garden.

Pritchard was there on that particular Friday as clean-up began, and it left her hopeful for the future. After a difficult few months, her mood was one of “absolute optimism,” she told The Current a few days later.

“Going down there and seeing gardeners on site starting to clean up, just total optimism. Total optimism.”

Slowly, sections of the garden are starting to look like their former selves. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com
Slowly, sections of the garden are starting to look like their former selves. 📷 Abbotsfordcommunitygarden.com

• • • •

Across the dead-end road from the community garden is the Pencil Patch—an acre of land operated by the non-profit Agriculture In The Classroom to teach children about farming, nature, plants, and animals. The Pencil Patch also sustained damage, with its soil stripped away, and garden beds, bins, and storage shed damaged.

But like Pritchard, the Pencil Patch’s executive director is also optimistic about the future. Patt Tonn said her organization will be pursuing grants to help remediate the property, and may turn to volunteers over the coming months. The group has temporarily moved its activities to a farm in Langley, but Tonn said they hope to have the Abbotsford site operational again for the next school year. As the site is cleaned up, Tonn hopes the

Pencil Patch can also be improved from what it was pre-flood, with potentially more information on the climate, the Indigenous history of the land, and maybe even a small greenhouse.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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