The Smos at Home: The pandemic farm

by Leanne Smoliak

The common denominator for my husband Brad and I has always been food.

We are both chefs, at least I once was one. We love talking about food, shopping for food, cooking food and eating food. Our son joined the ranks of the food lovers and started cooking by our side when he was just a tyke. He is now a physicist but still keeps a part-time kitchen job. Once you wield a knife in a professional kitchen there is no turning back.

pandemic farm

What has changed is how we view food. When we first met we were enthralled by starched white tablecloths and eagerly followed the goings-on of notable chefs. Entrees stacked as tall as they were wide. We didn’t pay attention to whether (or not) the strawberries we were eating were in or out of season. The 2010 Slow Food Convivia in Turin opened our eyes. There we met individuals who preserved traditional and regional cuisine and encouraged the farming of sustainable foods. We met farmers and producers who were incredibly proud of their livestock and plants. They were growing what was native to their land—it was thriving and so were they. Never have I seen a farmer so excited about celery.

As we navigated life in the restaurant game we started to see how much waste there was. And, at the same time, we became aware of the increasing amount of food insecurity there is in the world.

At Kitchen by Brad, we attempted to curb food waste. We sent leftovers home with the staff. If a needy person was found going through the garbage bins, we would give them a meal and tell them to knock next time.

One night at Kitchen by Brad we met Aimée and Dave Benjestorf. Little did we know how they would change our lives.
In 2020, the Benjestorfs started the Pandemic Planting Project, a multi-acre farm dedicated to growing produce for Edmonton’s Food Bank. Brad and I have volunteered at the farm since year one and although we are a little cog in the wheel of the giant tractor, our hearts are in it 100 per cent.

To be around Aimée and Dave is like walking in a path of sunlight. The farm is an ongoing labour of love and what they have done with it is almost inconceivable.

This spring a group of incredible volunteers planted 48,000 linear feet of potatoes, 4,000 of corn, 4,000 of sunflowers (in honour of Ukraine) and an acre of 22 different vegetables plus herbs and flowers. The garden and fields require tending all summer. There is lots of weeding and watering. Most of the work is done by Ukrainian refugees, some of the 60-plus families that the Benjestorfs helped come to Canada, some of the hardest working people I have ever met. We have learned from one another and had loads of laughs. Language does not separate us one bit. We have been brought together by the earth and by the seeds we plant and together we will help put food on the tables of Edmonton’s less fortunate.


Food has a different meaning to us now. If we were to be served a perfectly turned potato we will wonder; did the chef turn the trimmings into vichyssoise, or did they throw them out?

Leanne Smoliak’s greatest compliment came from her father-in-law: “She’s the perfect Ukrainian wife, she keeps a full fridge and a well-stocked bar.”

For more information on the Pandemic Farm, click here