Growing up in New Zealand through the 1950s and ‘60s, Jason Austin’s generation often joked they could do anything given a hammer and some fencing wire. And, for the accountant turned philanthropic farmer, the saying has certainly held true.
Over the last two decades, Austin has transformed his Central Saanich property from holly fields into a full-fledged farm – a farm that donates all 20 tonnes of its produce to local food banks every year.
“The need is so great and the disparity of income is so huge,” Austin said. In Greater Victoria, 18,500 households suffer from food insecurity, according to the Mustard Seed. Census statistics from 2015 show that just 7.5 per cent of Greater Victoria residents aged 15 or over in private households made $100,000 or more that year, while 40 per cent made $29,999 and under.
“I think we should even the playing field. It’s wrong that a child’s future is based on the lottery of what family it gets born into.”
|Volunteers tend to the garden at Gatton House Farm. (Courtesy of Jason Austin)|
Austin said he has a strong belief in society and the power of community-driven change. His project, Gatton House Farm, is driven by passionate volunteers who believe in the importance of what they’re doing. This, Austin said, is the key – to preserve that spark that philanthropic endeavors originate from.
“This is a community project. We don’t have rules. We just have people come out when they feel like it.” The goal is to make each visit to the farm feel fulfilling.
The problem with large scale non-profits, Austin said, is that what start as grassroots projects quickly turn into paperwork and meetings.
“I think they lose some of the original fire that got them started in the first place and they become institutionalized. Then, the form takes precedence over the function.”
A couple years back Austin said he was frustrated with the one of these larger agencies because instead of delivering his fresh produce directly to food banks, it would first take the food to its warehouse to weigh and store it. Austin said he explained to them that he already weighed it at his farm, but the agency insisted that it had to do it itself.
|Volunteers Paul Potvin and Joy Farrell joke around with some tromboncino squashes at Gatton House Farm. (Courtesy of Jason Austin)|
“The bigger the organization, and the more government money that’s involved, the less effective and the less efficient these operations are,” Austin said. “[Gatton House Farm is] here to help people, to put food into their mouths. Not to have fancy titles, not to engage in lengthy meetings.”
In the spring and summer months, when Austin looks around at his volunteers tending to the farm’s fruits and vegetables, he said he still sees that vital excitement.
“The reason for being is still there.”
He also sees growing experience and self-sufficiency. This is important for Austin’s dream of expanding his charitable farming operation. Or, of having others copy his model.
Last year, neighbours of Austin’s offered up 7,000 square feet of their land for the volunteers to farm on. Plenty of people have some spare land that they’re not using, Austin explained, they just don’t have the time and money to devote it to growing food for food banks. But, if volunteers could do the work for them, Austin said he sees no reason why collectively Greater Victoria residents couldn’t address food insecurity.
“Almost everyone at some point can either share their health, their wealth or their time,” Austin said. “We can’t cure the world’s ills from here, but we can alleviate them quite a bit.”
Anyone interested in volunteering with Gatton House Farm can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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