Syd Belzberg talks with Vancouver Talmud Torah kids at Stable Harvest Farm. (photo by Shira Sachs)
“The children loved to take their harvest home to share with their families. Many children helped to prepare the family meals, including washing, chopping and plating their meals. There was so much to learn – how healthy food can taste so yummy, how I can help my family make dinner, how the food can make my body feel good.”
“This is from some cute kid, and I see his picture in front of me,” Syd Belzberg told the Jewish Independent in a recent phone interview. “That’s heart-warming. That’s where it’s all at. That’s beautiful.”
The note came after Vancouver Talmud Torah Grade 1 students visited Belzberg’s Stable Harvest Farm in Langley last month.
Belzberg got the idea for the farm about a half dozen years ago. He read a newspaper article about Vancouver Sun reporters who had started a breakfast program for schoolchildren in the 1980s. “I got in touch with them and got involved a bit, supporting some of the schools with money,” said Belzberg.
But he wanted to have more of an impact and, after he retired a couple of years ago, he decided to reinvent his Langley acreage, which had been home to his many horses several decades ago, but had laid empty for some 17 years. He based his concept on that of Coastal Roots Farm, “a nonprofit Jewish community farm and education centre” located near the home he has in California. “They do a lot of wonderful things,” said Belzberg, “and I thought this would be a heck of a thing to try and copy in a way.”
He hired Kristjan Johannson to manage the farm and the first crop was planted in January 2020. Despite flooding on the property, they gave away about 90,000 pounds of organic vegetables to a half-dozen food banks, as well as to community meals programs.
“This year, we decided to try and double it,” said Belzberg. And they more than doubled it, giving away an estimated 250,000 pounds of food, while continuing to work on the property.
Belzberg established the Stable Harvest Farm Society, he said, “to make this a legacy for my family.” Of his five kids, only one lives in Vancouver, and that daughter, Tammi Kerzner, “has been a massive help to me to build this,” he said.
“There are many facets to what I want to do,” said Belzberg, “but I wanted to get the food thing right because I didn’t know what we’d have to go through to be successful.”
Belzberg’s approach with this project has been similar to that which he has taken with his other endeavours.
“When I started in the car business [Budget Rent a Car] in ’62, I had trucks and other things in mind, but I wanted to rent cars and learn about that first,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. I wanted to prove we can get the vegetables right before I started to do anything else.”
Educational programming is a main component of the farm. “David Bogoch had a lot to do with teaming up with TT. He is such a supporter of it,” said Belzberg about collaborating with the school. “And my children went there. I have a great-granddaughter now who goes there. So it was a natural [fit]. The part that really put us over the top was Emily [Greenberg], because she’s fantastic. She’s so on top of it, and she’s got Jessica [Claudio] there, who goes to another level.”
“Mr. Belzberg has been a very generous supporter of VTT,” said Greenberg, who met Belzberg for the first time when he first saw the school’s rooftop soccer pitch that he funded. That was in her second week as head of school, she said.
“And we’ve had close relationships with David Bogoch, who is quite close to Mr. Belzberg, and he kept talking to me about this farm that Mr. Belzberg was creating … that Mr. Belzberg had a dream to make this farm a centre for Jewish education and Jewish values and the Jewish community and that he would love to see children using this farm, in addition to how it supports the needy in Vancouver.”
Belzberg eventually invited Greenberg for a visit and they spoke about his vision and she “went away and thought about how we could make that happen from our end and, ultimately, bring kids out there.”
The first thing that happened, said Greenberg, was that Johannson came to the school and helped the kids plant seedlings. “Then we had, basically, a little nursery there at the school and watched them grow and supported them.” The plan was for the kids to plant the adolescent seedlings in April at the farm but COVID restrictions had increased, “so we weren’t able to bring the kids to Langley because it was cross-boundary.” But the planting was filmed and a multi-series educational video was made.
“Thankfully, the regulations changed again and we were able to go in the third week of June and send all of our Grade 1 kids out there,” said Greenberg. “They were able to help reap the harvest and they each brought home a bag of veggies from Mr. Belzberg’s farm and made the most amazing salads and soups and all sorts of things and we’ve got some great pictures of what they made that night. We had parents who were ecstatic, watching their kids eat raw vegetables – including scallions.”
The kids had grown the scallions, as well as lettuce and radishes, and their bags were supplemented with some other vegetables from the farm, such as tomatoes and carrots.
On their visit, the kids also got to see the part of the property that will become a bird sanctuary – “there’s a hundred and some odd different types of birds and owls that feed there and it became a natural habitat,” said Belzberg.
Another aspect of Stable Harvest is bees. Belzberg works with beekeeper Carolyn Essaunce, who owns the Honest to Goodness Farm Co. Essaunce also made a trip to VTT and spoke to each senior kindergarten class.
“She brought a whole honeycomb with live bees,” said Greenberg. “She helped them understand how, when you take a honeycomb and you put it in a machine and spin it, how you get the honey out…. They understood what it was to produce honey and then they all went home with some of Mr. Belzberg’s honey…. That is definitely something we hope to repeat yearly.”
Experiential learning is the future of education, said Greenberg. “For us, we want to prioritize learning through nature and to exposure to nature, but also, of course, finding ways to make sure that Jewish values are part of that…. So this has been a tremendous opportunity for us. It’s only the beginning – we look forward to bringing many more of our grades out to Stable Harvest Farm next year. There’s obviously a science aspect but we also want our kids to be shomrei adamai, guardians of the earth, and understand the power of nature. There’s an empowerment that happens when they’re part of growing a plant and the excitement that happens. And the understanding of the life cycle and how that eventually nourishes us and nourishes those in need – it’s a tremendous marriage of all of the values we have as educators, but also as a Jewish day school.”
VTT has invested a lot of time in iSTEAM over the last two years, she said, “integrating the innovations that have been coming out of Israel and using that as the platform from which to explore science, technology, engineering, art and math. A great example that you have at Mr. Belzberg’s farm is drip irrigation, which is an Israeli innovation…. We love the fact that our kids can be proud of a technology that’s come out of Israel and understand how innovation can revolutionize an entire industry and, ultimately, help people live a better, healthier life.”
Greenberg’s goal is to get all of the VTT students out to the farm at least once over a two-year span. “We have a lot of ideas,” she said, “and Mr. Belzberg, thankfully, is very flexible. He just says, ‘Tell me what works for you and we’ll make it happen.’ He always says that: ‘We’ll make it happen.’”
And there is lots that Belzberg plans to make happen. Next year, for example, he hopes to build a large kitchen on the farm for cooking classes, education and other activities. Already, the farm has had its first stand, on June 19, and joined its first farmer’s market, in White Rock, on June 20.
“It’s a helluva way to give back and it fills a vast need and I can afford to do it,” said Belzberg when asked why the farm is important to him. “It’ll hopefully continue forever,” he said.
“When I sat there with the TT kids, and they’re coming up to me and shaking my hand, and when I see the letters that are coming back, the salads, the fact that these kids are into food, I give TT all the credit in the world,” said Belzberg. “It was one of the 10 happiest moments of my life when I sat there a week or so back and watched the kids being in the ground, getting their hands dirty. What could be better than that? And the smiles on their faces.”