Steve Bridger doesn’t have enough fingers to count the number of times he’s had litter thrown on his award-winning garden in the last month.
Yesterday, as he tells it, a gleaming BMW stopped at the side of the road, a passenger opened a door and tossed out fast food wrappers.
“They didn’t see me pruning. When I hollered at them, they sped off in a spray of gravel, leaving me to clean up their mess,” he said.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, and visitors in vehicles admire and photograph Bridger’s peaceful plot, set on farmland on the winding, rural, Finn Road. The garden surrounds his 1912 cottage, spilling across the road alongside Woodward’s Slough in an agricultural area of Richmond, a city 20 miles south of Vancouver.
Adrienne Moore, a local painter, has set up her easel. “What is that divine fragrance?” she asks, walking past beds of asters, hollyhocks, lilies, gardenias, honeysuckle, roses, and sweet William. “Oh, it’s the lavender,” Moore decides.
Bridger maneuvers his rake around clusters of violet lupines, unearthing soda cup lids and a child’s sock, mumbling about how he raked this last week, then using a gloved hand, wages war on cigarette butts permeating periwinkle ground cover.
In the three decades he has tended his garden, he’s seen littering escalate. When he first bought the place and started creating the beds, he’d pick up beer bottles and cans on Sunday mornings. “That was about it,” he said.
Over the years, candy bar wrappers and chip bags appeared. When a suburban mall was built a mile away, swathes of cardboard coffee cups and fast food containers materialized.
As fees at the local landfill have risen, so has dumping.
“We’ve seen couches, tables, chairs, televisions, mattresses and drywall dumped,” said Graham Price, a neighbor, pointing to the Woodward Slough, a much-needed habitat for frogs, bats, river otters and herons. “Anything that can be thrown out of a car or unloaded from a truck ends up here.”
Bridger recently heard a car door slam on a quiet afternoon and looked out to see a woman hauling an old computer monitor and processor out of her trunk and dumping it in his flowerbed. He stormed outside and told the woman to take it away.
“She had the gall to tell me it was a gift,” he said. “I had to threaten to phone the police before she would drag it back to her car. I know she offloaded it down the road,” said Bridger.
Price says he’s seen drivers of expensive vehicles with children in baby seats throw garbage out of their windows.
“I’ve seen couples stop, get out and casually unload garbage bags with styrofoam beside the road and then accelerate away,” said Price.
The neighbors agree fines are the solution. “We need to take photos of license plates and email them to Richmond’s by-law enforcement department. Then the City has to issue tickets so that litterers don’t come back here and ruin paradise,” said Bridger.
On this autumn Saturday morning, while a hard wind howls off the Fraser River bringing stinging gusts of rain, there’s a festive feel in a lineup of about two dozen foodies, holding onto umbrellas at the edge of a small shopping plaza.
The draw is organically grown produce offered just once a week for sale at the Sweet Digz Farm stand.
“Our goal is to provide customers with healthy produce” says Kareno Hawbolt, who has farmed for more than a decade. With her life and business partner, Kimi Hendess, Hawbolt owns Sweet Digz Farm.
“Technically, we aren’t certified organic, but we plan to start the process,” said Hawbolt.
In the meantime, Hawbolt and Hendess follow organic farming principals and use farming methods that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment and optimize the agro-ecosystem. They don’t use chemicals of any type.
Their four-acre farm is on land leased from a wealthy landowner, a stone’s throw from their farm stand.
Here, in the growing season from March to October, the couple labor in greenhouses and fields up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We grow 50 vegetable crops including beans, cabbages, corn, cucumbers, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsnips, potatoes, squash, tomatillos, tomatoes and zucchini,” said Hawbolt.
It’s backbreaking work. The couple doesn’t use leading-edge technology. They don’t own a tractor, produce sorter or cultivator. The costs would wipe out profits.
Instead, the only mechanized equipment are two small gas-powered rototillers and a utility pick-up truck. Most of the work is done by hand.
It’s why customers have an almost religious fervor about supporting them. If Sweet Digz closed, there are just a handful of local farms growing produce, and no-one else delivers.
“Each week from May-September, we harvest vegetables, pack them into boxes, and deliver them to about 90 customers who have prepaid for the season,” says Hawbolt. “They get what’s fresh from the field, which varies each week.”
Friday’s the couple pick and sort vegetables into boxes and bins, which they take to their Saturday farm stand to sell to about 100 regular customers.
Sweet Digz Farm is in the City of Richmond’s South Slough District, one of the few remaining large tracts of agricultural land, 20 miles south of Vancouver.
The district covers six square miles, running east from No. 2 Road to No. 5 Road and south from Steveston Highway to the Fraser River.
“Private farmland here is technically protected,” said Hawbolt.
Since 1973, the province has expanded permitted uses on protected farmland. Bed and breakfasts, churches, commercial nurseries, golf courses, gravel pits, horse stables, kennels, private schools, soil fill operations, storage facilities, timber production and wineries are allowed.
Of these, 102 farms are owned by sole proprietors, 62 are family farms and 35 are partnership farms, one of which is Sweet Digz.
Richmond’s farms employed 1,275 workers a decade ago. Now there are 680 workers, according to Statistics Canada.
“Those who are self-employed or work for farmers, may have second jobs, pushed by rising costs and low profits,” said Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for the Canadian credit union system, and a regular Sweet Digz customer.
This is true for Hendess and Hawbolt, who put their university degrees and other skills to use in winter months.
“To supplement farm income, we’ve taught at Kwantlen Polytechnic’s Farm School, and I’ve even worked as a nanny, said Hawbolt. Hendess is a certified carpenter and takes on projects during the winter.
“The world market is giving strong signals we are entering a period of dire food shortages,” said Newman.
“The drought in California and low Canadian dollar mean we can’t rely on importing vegetables from California. Sweet Digz fills an increasing need, especially for low-income neighbours.”
How long can they hang on?
“Land security is our biggest concern. There’s no guarantee our lease will be renewed or the land won’t be rezoned,” said Hawbolt. “We can’t afford to buy since farmland sells for more $500,000 an acre. We take it day by day.”
In the meantime, Hendess and Hawbolt are philosophically committed to taking care of their fertile farmland, although the odds are stacked against them.
Their customers are grateful for the delicious food. As they become more knowledgeable they’re telling the government, “hands off farmland.”
Local farmers grow a range of crops, and, at this time of year, the easiest crop to sell is pumpkins. There are fields and fields of them.
Farmers go all out to attract residents from nearby subdivisions and from Vancouver, 20 minutes north, to farm stands.
It’s a pleasant place to live. In the early morning, we hear the gentle hum of tractors, and although the yellow leaves are falling fast, there are still a few bees buzzing as they pollinate autumn crops.