British Columbia

How Surrey's suburban farm has thrived, even as the city grew around it

Nearly 90 years later after Zaklan Heritage Farm was won in a poker game (so the legend has it), most of the pastures and green space that once surrounded it have been replaced by rows of townhouses, light industrial businesses and busy roads.

Zaklan Heritage Farm in Newton has been owned by the same family since 1924

Today, Zaklan Heritage Farm in Surrey is bordered by two busy streets, industrial land and rows of townhouses. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

When you visit Zaklan Heritage Farm in Surrey, it doesn't take long to realize that it's not like other farms in the city.

Everything about the property, located near the intersection of 132 Street and 84 Avenue, is unique, including the legend of how the Zaklans won it in a poker game in 1924.

Gemma McNeill, who farms eight acres with her partner Doug Zaklan, says in its early days the land was more of a social gathering spot than a farm.

"This was kind of an escape from the city," she said.

"Friends would come out on the weekends — this was during Prohibition — so they'd come out and have speakeasies."

Nearly 90 years later, most of the pastures and green space that once surrounded the farm have been replaced with rows of townhouses, light industrial businesses and busy roads.

"People often describe what we have here as like, this little oasis in the middle of the city," McNeill said.

"Now it's kind of like the last vestige of agricultural land in the middle of Newton."

Gemma McNeill and Doug Zaklan show off their new artichokes at Zaklan Heritage Farm. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

Suburban farm

Much of the food that's grown on McNeill and Zaklan's farm winds up on the tables of some of the top restaurants in Vancouver, such as Bao Bei, Nightingale and Savio Volpe.

They also offer a community supported agriculture program, which allows customers to pick up fresh produce every week.

"It's a great time to be getting into farming," Zaklan said.

"There's a lot more interest than there used to be in local organic food."

Zaklan hopes the increased popularity of 100-mile diets, comprised of locally produced food, will raise awareness for the importance of protecting agricultural land.

Many of the farms that once surrounded his property were replaced decades ago by family homes.

"I think we have to value agriculture more than we do," he said.

"I know people are struggling to find housing but we'll also be struggling to eat, so there's a trade off."

George Zaklan says when he was a boy, the farm was so quiet that he could hear the grass grow. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

Family history

As McNeill pots artichokes, Zaklan's great uncle sits on a bench and looks out at the highway beyond the fence.

George Zaklan, 86, shakes his head at the noise as an ambulance zooms by with its siren wailing.

"As a youngster, one of the complaints I had was this place was so silent," he said.

"You could almost hear the grass grow."

The landscape has changed a great deal since he was a little boy and he has mixed feelings about how Surrey has grown.

"These youngsters growing up now are looking at asphalt," he said.

"Once the past is gone, it cannot be recovered."

Zaklan says he's had many opportunities to sell the farm over the years but he's committed to the land that's been in his family's name since the days of Prohibition.

He's proud that it will stay in the family for at least another generation.

"It used to be always fashionable to sell your farm, get a new car, get a new chesterfield, a new pair of shoes and then move on," he said.

"I always said selling [is something that] any fool can do. We're going to keep it."

Surrey — Why We Live Here is a week-long series looking at the people and neighbourhoods that make up B.C.'s second largest city.


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