It once was a garbage dump. Then it was infilled as part of building the Upper Levels Highway. Now the plot of land is home to a park, a beloved community garden and a farm that sells fresh produce every week during harvest season.
Given that it’s just a bit of soil with hardpan underneath, it’s said to be a bit miraculous that much grows there at all. But for over a decade, staff at Loutet Farm have nurtured the earth and created a local source of food.
Now, through the Edible Garden Project, the North Shore’s first urban farm hosts biweekly markets and is a community hub for knowledge-sharing and produce-growing initiatives.
Obviously, North Van is a pretty affluent neighbourhood, says market coordinator Becca Eastman.
“It doesn’t always feel like we’re in the midst of getting to everyone who really needs food,” they said. “Even though it’s more hidden, there are a bunch of people who come to our market with food coupons that they get through the Association of Farmers Markets.”
But most of the market attendees can afford fresh produce from the grocery store, Eastman added, so it’s more about showing people what local food security is, even if they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.
What’s key to the project is getting more people engaged in the process of growing and harvesting produce.
“When we get those skills, it’s going to encourage people to grow in their own backyards, give it to their families, eat it themselves, give it to their friends and try to go from this globalized system that I don’t think is going to keep working that well, and bring it more into our communities,” Eastman continued.
In 2005, the Edible Garden Project kicked off after Vancouver Coastal Health identified a gap in access to fresh, local produce on the North Shore. That analysis spurred a group of people passionate about improving access to local food to take action.
The City of North Vancouver helped to secure funding early on and continues to support the project. North Shore Neighbourhood House was also an early partner, and eventually brought the garden project under its wing.
According to the organization, when the first sharing garden opened in 2006, it had a $30,000 budget, one part-time staff, 20 volunteers and six square metres of growing space. As of 2021, the project had grown to a $220,000 budget, three full-time and two part-time staff, more than 300 volunteers, 5,260 square feet of growing space and more than 3,500 participants.
In 2011, workers first broke ground at Loutet. Five years later, the half-acre urban farm met its goal of being revenue-neutral – quite the transformation from the farm and surrounding park land’s former identity as a landfill as late as 1959. Most of the crops grown on the farm are sold, with revenue going back to the Neighbourhood House. But goods from the North Shore’s five sharing gardens go directly into the pantries of those with the greatest need, Eastman explained, via women’s shelters, social housing or food banks.
'We can do this more'
Public participation at the farm quieted over the past couple years, but things started opening up again in April, drawing familiar faces and new hands too.
“I came in April, and it’s been absolutely wonderful,” said Leslie Larson, a North Vancouver resident of 35 years. The staff are amazing to work with, “even if you screw up really badly,” she chuckled.
The work started with amending all the garden beds. Larson helped with the top dressing, composting, broad forking and wheel barrowing of chips to fill the walkways. Then she aided in starting up the market, assisting at the cashier and welcoming station, and setting up the newsletter.
“That’s really valuable because it tells you everything that’s fresh at the market,” she said of the newsletter, “And it has seminars that are free.”
Larson, who now lives in a townhouse complex, misses the gardening she used to at her house. Working at Loutet has been a great outlet.
“I tried to switch careers many years ago to gardening, to doing this kind of thing,” she said. “And no one would take me because of my financial background.”
Larson said she spreads the word about the work being done at Loutet Farm all the time. Above all, she’s learned what’s possible out of a small area.
“We can do this more through the North Shore,” she said. “We have to do sustainability – it’s just the way to go.”
If you'd like to get involved at Loutet, you can sign up to volunteer on the Edible Garden Project website. The next orientation and info session is on Saturday, Aug. 31.