Plaid shirts, denim and working boots - not exactly what you'd picture a lawyer or a corporate businessman to be wearing on a weekday. When Jaskaran and Gagandeep aren't behind their desks, knee deep in court cases and Human Resources work, they're knee deep in farm work, tilling the fields of the KarmaGrow farm, preparing crops of vegetables for foodbanks in Brampton and surrounding areas.
Names: Gagandeep Singh Batth and Jaskaran Singh Sandhu (pictured from left to right)
Suitless Pursuit: Co-founders and presidents of KarmaGrow
Why did you decide to start KarmaGrow together?
J: Gagan and his family own a 100-acre farm just north of Orangeville, just for family use. They used to give me bags of vegetables almost weekly, and so one day I suggested to Gagan, “why don’t we start our own farm, like a social entrepreneurship kind of thing?” We sat on the idea for a while, but nothing happened.
G: And then in my Human Resources program at Humber College, I had to take this elective course in social entrepreneurship and I decided to do my project on our farm idea.
J: He asked me to help with his business plan, and eventually, it became more about making it a reality than hoping for an A on the assignment.
It couldn’t have been an easy feat though.
J: The path to this farm was riddled with failure. We started with a very modest idea: to create a community garden at my old high school, Notre Dame, with help from my former teacher, Mr. Hamilton. We were going to incorporate the students and have an educational component to it, but we ran into liability issues and had to nix the idea. We then reached out to Dixie Gurdwara, one of the biggest Sikh temples in North America, to see about building a community garden there to supply their kitchen. That also didn’t work out at the last minute, so we were up against a wall, but then we met the Somal family, owners Khoobsurat Klothing. The family owns a 45-acre farm on their land in Caledon, and Gurpreet Somal agreed to host our farm for us. They have been the champions of all this. Gurpreet even asked us if we wanted all 45 acres! We’re just on one acre right now though.
G: Our hope is that we can grow organically, instead of attempting to mass produce vegetables, mess up and have no one trust us.
Third time’s a charm then?
J: Definitely. We’re very fortunate that we have this. In fact, this all literally wouldn’t be possible without all the help we’ve gotten from so many different kinds of people, including all our partners.
How long did it take from the business proposal to where you are now?
G: I think it was two years in the making. Jaskaran had the connections already, so he did most of the legwork to get it started. Even now, I do more of the farmwork and he does more of the management.
What vegetables does your farm harvest?
G: We grow tomatoes, eggplants, sweet peppers, chili peppers, cucumbers, watermelon, summer squash and zucchini. Soon, we’ll have garlic, onions, sweet corn and bush bean. Depending on space, we may grow kale and carrots, but they're both a pain to harvest! Next year we hope to have strawberries and also make a flower garden.
How does your farm operate?
J: We dedicate half an acre for the garden, which is split into 75% communal (taken care by our partners) and 25% split by our partnered food banks. Our farm is reflective of the Sikh philosophy of sarbat da bhalla (the well-being of all) and seva (selfless service for humanity). Everything here is volunteer-based, and we’re doing it for everyone. We’re not just partnered up with Sikh food banks - we work with Christian and Catholic food banks as well, and we hope to partner with Jewish and Muslim organizations too.
Are your vegetables...organic?
J: I’ll be honest: no, we’re not organic. It takes about 10 years of no pesticide or herbicide use to be able to call your farm “organic”. But we try to maintain sustainable practices. For example, our water is sourced naturally from the pond. Some people say, “use solar panels!” but we’re just not that hardcore. We’re hippie as we can be without being fully hippie. We have limited funds, and we’re realistic about things, so we can’t go all out and buy solar panels. At the end of the day, our primary mission is to provide a sustainable source of vegetables for food banks.
Jaskaran, you’re a lawyer by day. How do you do it all?
J: I have my own criminal practice, which affords me time to do different things. Most of my work is at court, so there’s prepwork but little paperwork. It’s also not hard to find two or three hours a day to do what you want. I don’t watch a lot of TV, and I barely surf the internet. I like spending time with my wife and two-year old daughter, but a lot of my time is spent at the farm or doing things for the farm.
Do you think your profession in law plays any part in your farming?
J: People joke around and say that I put the scum of the earth back on the streets, but it's not as cut-and-dry as that: good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. We all need help at one time or another, and I think the farm really highlights that. I like to have a laissez-faire attitude and not take things too seriously. There’s a human element in everything, and everyone has a soul that’s reflective of themselves. Life’s all about living in the middle.
And Gagan, you work in HR?
G: I work as a performance coordinator for Siemens. I don’t have as much flexibility with my day as Jaskaran, but I work from home some days. When I do, my friends joke and ask if I’m on my tractor with my laptop.
Do you have an inspiration or role model?
J: I’d have to say, my father. He’s an avid gardener, and growing up, our backyard was a dedicated garden. So I owe my gardening knowledge to him. I also really respect the Sikh community. Volunteering is not only an honourable thing to do or a religious obligation, but it’s also instilled in us from a young age. I’ve always been interested in social activism and serving others. Doing seva is an integral part of our life, so coming from this kind of community, it had a huge impact on me. I’ve also learned from running this farm that the community really steps behind you and backs you up on things.
Do you have a goal in mind for your farm, and for yourself?
J: For the farm, we want to be able to serve more vegetables to food banks than they know what to do with. In all honesty, a family may get one cucumber in a month, and that’s obviously not enough.
Food banks are supposed to help people get back onto their feet when they're having a rough time. I hope that our farm can be a part of that, and be able to provide a healthy diet for families. I also hope that the farm encourages volunteering and communities coming together. Farms can fail at any point, but the fact that it’s already brought together food banks and partners that otherwise wouldn’t have engaged on this level makes me happy.
Personally, I want to be the best I can be. Live a humble but good life, keep my family happy and healthy, serve the community and help out where I can.
Any advice to people who want to volunteer or start their own organization to give back to the community?
J: Don’t give up, don’t be discouraged - every path is full of failure. While there are no limits, you just have to be open to ideas and be prepared to face your biggest obstacle: time. Develop skills that you can use to do the things you love, but form enough skills and background so that you can also help others. Organizations and people are always looking for help and volunteering, so if you have a skill that you’re under-utilizing, start knocking on doors. There’s a lot of support out there.
Visit the KarmaGrow website: www.karmagrow.org
Interested in volunteering on the KarmaGrow farm? Visit their Volunteer Resources page at: www.karmagrow.org/volunteer-resources
Follow KarmaGrow on social media:
Facebook - www.facebook.com/karmagrow
Twitter - www.twitter.com/Karma_Grow