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What does regenerative farming mean at this Richmond farm?

"We're not going for the 100-mile diet here. (It's) the 100-foot diet," says farm director.

Five years after a duo took over a farm on No. 2 Road, the property now has more birds, bees and trees.

It's all thanks to the mini-ecosystem built using regenerative farming practices, said Athiana Acres' Simran Panatch and Daniel Garfinkel.

Managing director Panatch, whose family had leased the property to farmers in the past, has a background in land and food systems, business and analytics.

"I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something with this land, and it just seemed like an opportunity that I didn't want to give up," she said.

A search on Google for Richmond experts on regenerative agriculture sent Panatch to Garfinkel, and what started as a consultation blossomed into a business partnership with Garfinkel serving as Athiana Acres' farm director.

Garfinkel, a farmer and cook who used to work at the KPU farm as a program instructor, first saw the farm five years ago.

"I couldn't be more dramatic. There was nothing there. And I remember Simran's dad asking me, 'What do you think we could do here?' I just remember looking out, just saying, 'You could do anything,'" Garfinkel recalled.

The soil in Richmond is "some of the best in Canada," he explained.

He could see potential in what the land could produce and the kind of community that could be built on the farm.

What does regenerative farming mean?

At the heart of Athiana Acres' operations is the duo's determination to take a holistic and biodiverse approach to farming.

Part of the transformation was to move on from monocropping, the practice of only growing one crop on a piece of land without rotating in other crops. Now, about 50 flower varieties are farmed alongside vegetables, including 10 varieties of onions, and the crops are rotated based on seasonal availability.

"If you look at nature as a little snapshot, really rarely or ever, there is one thing grown in one area. Even in a forest, there's a range of different trees, shrubs, plants, etc.," Garfinkel explained.

The goal is to create nature in an organized manner, he added.

Growing a variety of plants in the soil can promote different nutrients coming in and out of the soil. The diversity also creates a "more robust system of resiliency" with more roadblocks that can minimize the impact of potential pests and diseases.

Trees planted around the property to protect the farm from the wind also help create "microcosms of biodiversity" that birds and insects can call home.

On the business side of things, having a diverse range of crops means the business isn't reliant on the success of one single crop. The diversity also keeps customers engaged and interested, and the farm can grow specific varieties on a smaller scale to meet demands from local restaurants and chefs.

"What we like to say is (if) you see it in a grocery store, we're probably growing it," said Garfinkel.

"The only difference is we're growing it as the season allows."

Although regenerative farming is starting to receive more attention, Garfinkel says conventional farming is still the "standard" internationally.

"Maybe this is just my personal opinion here, but I think the glory days of conventional, chemical-based, kind of 'not taking the land into consideration' style of farming — I think it's running out a little bit. Because I think the land is really showing us that it's not happy," he said.

However, Garfinkel thinks there's still a lot to learn from farmers using conventional methods.

"There's a huge mutual respect. I learned a lot from them. They learn a lot from us. And frankly, it's growing food, and we can simplify to that," he explained, adding that they experience the same pest issues as their neighbours.

Education as a core value

Starting with tours of the farm, Panatch and Garfinkel are hoping Athiana Acres can serve as a classroom for the community.

"... we really want people to be curious and just to engage more with the food system," said Panatch.

Garfinkel added the team is dedicated to creating an interactive experience.

"A lot of farms have closed gates constantly... But we really want to open our doors, take people on farm tours, teach them about stuff, get them to try things," he said.

Transparency is key, and the tours serve as "snapshot experiences" that lift the veil over the food system.

"I think the funny thing is that when people come to our market, a lot of times, people's first question is, 'Oh, where are things grown?' Like, 'Where's the farm?'" said Panatch.

"And so it's fun to be able to let people see what's in the market and what the crops look like fully harvested and ready (for) purchase, but then walking them out into the field to show them 100 feet away, exactly how things were grown."

"We're not going for the 100-mile diet here. (It's) the 100-foot diet," Garfinkel added.

Community-centred approach

Athiana Acres's operations have been doubling in size each year since it opened its doors at the end of 2022.

"Our biggest growing pain... is the constant growth," said Garfinkel, who added they have "too many things" they would like to try.

"But for us, that just means that our neighbours, our restaurant customers, partners, they are interested."

The farm has been collaborating with local businesses on ice cream and juice offerings, as well as trialing local seeds and farming software. It also serves as a space for community events such as yoga workshops.

In September, the farm will host the 2024 Metro Vancouver Feast of Fields, a massive farm-to-table event featuring gourmet creations by local talent and live music.

The farm is working with UBC on several research projects and it recently took in almost 150 trees that outgrew the City of Richmond's tree nursery.

"If you came to the farm last year at this time as compared to this year, it would look completely different. Next year might be the same, because we just want to keep doing more," said Panatch.

"We want to use our farm in the best way. And we want to be able to leverage the size, the scope, our knowledge, our experience, to make sure that we're kind of milking everything up," Garfinkel added.

Athiana Acres' farm market is open on Wednesdays from 2 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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