When the pandemic hit, David Benjestorf knew he needed to do something to combat the rising food security crisis amongst Edmontonians. As the Vice Chair of the Edmonton Food Bank, he’s familiar with creating solutions for feeding those in need, but hadn’t ever experienced anything quite like the uncertainties of Covid-19. “How would food trucks get across the border? Will there still be volunteers in the warehouse? Will we have to give up fresh food for processed food for a long period of time?”. These are all questions that David worried about. The solution? To grow this much-needed food himself!
After his first growing season, David participated in the Young Agrarians Business Bootcamp with the hope of expanding his veggie farm, The Pandemic Planting Project. He shares his story and provides insight into how the Business Bootcamp helped his farm.
It All Starts Here
Have you ever watched the film on Netflix called “The Biggest Little Farm”? Maybe it brought you to tears. Maybe you reconsidered your food choices. Maybe it pushed you to turn your 23 acre property into a farm to feed the community. Perhaps the third option is a bit of a rarity, but it’s exactly what happened for David. The central message of the film is the important role that each plant and animal plays on a farm, highlighting the interconnectedness of all these elements. On April 15, David took this message to heart and turned it into an opportunity to address food security issues in Edmonton by starting The Pandemic Planting Project.
David had a big and bold idea. He wanted to turn his property, located just outside of Edmonton, into a farm that could produce 20,000 pounds of food for the Edmonton Food Bank. Considering that David had never grown a vegetable before, this was a wild dream, maybe even an impossible dream, but he was determined to try.
With no farming experience and a late start to the season, David dove headfirst into it all. He started by recruiting community volunteers, calling anyone he could get in touch with to help. Within a few days he had 15 or so volunteers. Then, he went to every Peavey Mart and Canadian Tire within a 100 km radius, purchasing every seed he could get his hands on. He describes the first 30 days of The Pandemic Planting Project as an “immense learning experience”. Every day after finishing work at 5, he’d drive straight to the farm, working till 11 at night. On weekends, his entire days were spent in the field. Things were fast-paced, but that’s how it needed to be.
Porcupine and Pesticides
In the early stages of the farm, David contemplated the use of pesticides and chemicals. “How are we going to control the weeds?”, he asked himself one evening. As he watched the sunset, he glanced down to see a porcupine sauntering towards the newly planted field. The porcupine stopped at the edge of the field and started eating the dandelions and other weeds. The next evening, the porcupine reappeared at David’s feet, munching away on more weeds. This magical encounter was a sign; in that moment, David made the decision to not spray the weeds. He committed to working around the plants and animals in the area, doing everything he could to avoid using chemicals in the garden.
That commitment came with some challenges. Early in the season, he witnessed an invasion of potato beetles. He learnt that he could buy bags of ladybugs and at night, he released them onto wet leaves where they would feed on the beetle larvae. With the combination of ladybugs and a team of volunteers who helped pick out the unwanted insects by hand, he was able to avoid potato damage. “Every challenge creates an opportunity”, explains David.
Over the course of the season, The Pandemic Planting Project grew 22 kinds of vegetables including carrots, beets, and potatoes as well as various herbs. David exceeded his wildest dreams, donating a total of over 95,000 pounds of vegetables to the Food Bank. Right from the start, David worked with an amazing team of volunteers and relied on the advice of other local farmers.
In the first season, the project had 15 volunteers who each volunteered once a week. This year, they hope to grow that number to 22. Each volunteer is responsible for their own row, giving them the flexibility to volunteer on the day of the week they choose. They spread the workload further by taking turns watering the field. Volunteers are also encouraged to take home any vegetables they need for themselves and their families. David was also mentored by local farmers, including Doug and Kelly from Lady Flower Gardens, who helped answer questions about veggie farming best practices in the Edmonton region.
When it was time for the first big potato harvest of the season – 9.2 km of potatoes needed to be dug and packed – David made a call out to the community for help. He doubted his ability to recruit enough hands to help so he prepared himself for several long days in the field. On harvest day, he watched a community come together. One car full of volunteers, then another, then another. Word of mouth travelled fast and before he knew it, he had upwards of 60 volunteers on the farm and the potatoes were harvested in no time!
Another core value of The Pandemic Planting Project is connecting community members with each other and the process of growing food. From hay rides to farm-to-table dinners (on farm), David describes the project as “a community that pulled them all together”. He watched as parents brought their children to the farm, teaching them important lessons about how foods grow.
Business Bootcamp & The Future
After the first season, a friend of David’s recommended the Young Agrarians Business Bootcamp. The Business Bootcamp is a 10-week course that focuses on a different topic each week, bringing participants together with farm experts to share their learnings. Although David comes from a business and law background, he wanted to learn more about agriculture, thinking about ways he could expand his project.
David loved learning about the different aspects of running a farm business. The Bootcamp puts new and experienced people in the same (virtual) room, creating a space for diverse conversations. “If you are a person who has never started a business, the bootcamp is extraordinarily valuable.” David goes on to note that, “the Bootcamp is an education in all aspects of a farm business, from creating a concept, evaluating it, imagining a name and brand, creating budgets, learning about legal and liability, guidance on accounting, learning about production, then social media, sales and marketing, and everything in between. While there is structured content for each module, you learn at your own pace. Equally as important as the more formal learning, is the camaraderie of others in the course, including the guest lecturers. It doesn’t feel like a classroom, rather like a group of friends learning around a campfire with wise older family friends sprinkled around to share their years of experience.”
Outside of the Bootcamp, David expanded his learning by connecting with other participants and speakers. David chatted with Andrew Rosychuck of Rosy Farms, a haskap farm, to get advice about planting shrubs on his land in the future. “He was very generous with his time”, says David. David also talked with a participant who manages a greenhouse just outside of Edmonton and a few folks reached out to David for conversations as well.
In the future, David’s working on making the project financially sustainable. As he moves towards retirement, he envisions the project as two separate parts. He hopes to sell vegetables in a for-profit business and use the funds to cover expenses for his non-profit, which will continue to donate food to the Edmonton Food Bank and other charitable organizations.
If you are in the Edmonton area and are interested in participating in The Pandemic Planting Project, please reach out to David at email@example.com.