Roughly six years ago David Benjestorf and his wife bought 23 acres of land northwest of Edmonton in Sturgeon County.
He always imagined he would one day become a hobby farmer when he either retired or had some spare time — but that was hard to find.
A lawyer by day, Benjestorf is also vice-chair of the Edmonton Food Bank.
When the pandemic hit, the realities of what many people might be going through started to sink in.
“The demand for food at the food bank was astronomically high, and so that was swirling around in the back of my head,” Benjestorf said.
In April, he was inspired by a show on Netflix called “The Biggest Little Farm,” which is about a big city couple leaving it all behind to start a farm.
“It was like a light bulb went off for me: I can do that,” he said.
“Instantly, I said we’re going to start a vegetable farm for the Edmonton Food Bank.”
Benjestorf, however, had never grown anything before — “zero experience,” he said.
By May, he planted six-and-a-half acres of potatoes in his massive garden.
In another smaller half-acre garden, he grew 22 different kinds of vegetables.
The Pandemic Planting Project was officially born.
For the last four weekends, he and his many volunteers have been busy harvesting.
“I found a dozen friends and family and colleagues that agreed to donate a day or two of their time each and every week,” Benjestorf said.
A callout on social media eventually attracted dozens more.
In total, they’ve picked nearly 100,000 pounds of potatoes.
“The response has been incredibly heartwarming,” Benjestorf said.
“It just goes to show that [Edmonton is] a city with volunteers and volunteerism and never shy about helping those in need.”
Jay Ball has been volunteering in the garden for the past three Saturdays.
“It’s pretty fulfilling,” Ball said. “At the end of the day, you know what you’re doing is making a difference, and I’ve got a bit of time on my hands on the weekends.”
He said while harvesting is hard work, it’s also a lot of fun.
“It’s been a total escape for me,” Ball said.
“It just sort of takes those stresses away,” he said. “You know you’re doing something good but your mind gets to focus on something else.”
Oct. 3 was the final day of harvest. The feeling of accomplishment is mixed with sadness.
“I’m going to miss it. It’s been wonderful to get your hands in the soil, get dirty and contribute to others who are in need,” volunteer Michelle Turcotte said.
Benjestorf explained the feeling as bittersweet.
“I’ve never grown anything before; I’ve never had a garden,” Benjestorf said. “I now get to plant something, nurture it, raise it, work with a group of friends and volunteers, deliver it to the food bank, then on the other end, we get to give it out.”
Now he’s looking forward to taking what he’s learned into next season.
“I’m excited about growing the project,” he said.
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