The farm and the family: Burnaby’s Hop On Farms has closed, but its story lives on
A Burnaby farm with an incredible history. ❤️
Driving down Marine Drive in Burnaby’s Big Bend neighbourhood, it’s easy to spot the sign hanging from the side of the road. “Hop On Farms Fresh Produce”, it reads in bold, black letters, hovering above an illustration of colourful fruits and vegetables.
If you decide to pay Hop On a visit, you’ll head down a steeply sloped driveway and enter a slice of agricultural heaven tucked away in Burnaby’s farmlands.
On a typical warm spring or summer day, the farm will be buzzing with shoppers grabbing fresh produce for their evening barbeque or patio dinner. You’ll find crates of fresh corn from Chilliwack, heaps of locally grown potatoes, bunches of crisp lettuce from the farm, and so much more. You’ll likely come across familiar, friendly faces, as well. After all, the farm has been a community staple in Burnaby for decades, and it has grown thanks to generations of hard work from the Hong family.
But this year, things are different on the farm. The hustle and bustle has come to an end. The parking lot is empty, and there are no more fresh veggies or fruits to bring home for dinner because—after nearly 50 years in operation—Hop On Farms has closed its doors for good.
When asked how she feels about the closure of the farm, a wave of emotion take over Marlene Hong’s voice.
“I don’t even know how to describe the feeling,” she says, during an interview with the Beacon.
The farm has always been Hong’s life. Year after year, she’s helped plant the seeds, watched them grow, and harvested the crops. She’s seen thousands of people—many of them loyal customers—come through Hop On’s doors time and time again, to purchase the freshly picked lettuce, herbs, spring onions and more.
Hong’s deep connection to the farm was thanks to her father, Chan Kow Hong who came to Canada in 1952 to join her grandfather, Gay Tim Hong. Both father and son initially worked on the Musqueam Indian Reserve, where Gay Tim was leasing farmland. They eventually teamed up with three other partners and bought the Hop On Farms property in 1953. The farm was given its name because it translates to “peace, partnership, and union” in Cantonese.
Farming was the way of life for many early Chinese Canadian residents who settled in the city.
The Burnaby Village Museum’s History of Burnaby notes how many Chinese Canadian farmers helped grow and expand the city’s farmland despite facing adversity and discrimination.
“Chinese immigration had also slowed because of a prohibitive tax on those entering the country (a “head tax”), and, after 1923, federal laws that banned most Chinese immigration. Nonetheless, Chinese Canadian market gardeners, mostly men, persisted and helped populate the Fraser Arm (Big Bend) neighbourhood and other parts of Burnaby,” states the museum.
“Farmers sold their produce door-to-door, while a few merchants opened successful green grocery stores in north Burnaby. By the 1920s, Chinese Canadians dominated the vegetable trade, despite punitive trade licence fees intended to reduce their prosperity.”
For the Hongs, their journey continued in 1958, when Chan Kow’s wife, Sui Ha, immigrated to Burnaby. Their family grew as they had seven kids: twins Marlene and Darlene, Gary, Catherine, Josephine, Norine, and Pauline.
A few years later in 1964, Chan Kow and Gay Tim had bought out their partners and became the sole owners of Hop On.
In the years to follow, the farm would grow into a Burnaby staple, where folks from the city and around Metro Vancouver could come to purchase fresh, homegrown produce. The farm also supplied its produce to different wholesalers in Metro Vancouver and also received fruits and veggies from other local farms across BC to sell.
But turning a farm into a success doesn’t happen overnight. The entire family—including the Hong children—worked daily to grow the crops and the business.
“We weren’t exposed to a lot when we were kids because we were always on the farm. We always had to come home after school. … That’s how we were raised. We couldn’t go to a friend’s house after school and get to play or anything. That was our job, to come home after school and help the farm,” says Hong.
While their peers had summer vacation to enjoy, the Hong kids continued to work, but it was something they didn’t tend to question because they were accustomed to farm life.
“We didn’t have summers,” says Hong. “You see the other kids go out, like [being] allowed to do this and that, but growing up on the farm, that’s how you’re raised. So that’s what you were taught.”
While the family valued hard work, they also took time for breaks. Some of Hong’s most cherished moments growing up were taking pleasure in simple outings away from the farm, which usually occurred Sunday afternoons.
“We wanted to get all of our work done before Sunday afternoon so we could take the afternoon off and have some family time. … It was always something we looked forward to. Dad would always take six of us kids on a car ride, and we were only going down Byrne Road to look at cars, but it seemed like we were driving far away. We had no concept of distance or anything. So [it would be] five minutes away but when we’re kids it seemed like we were driving for half-an-hour before we got to see cows and horses and whatnot,” she says.
Hong notes that only six of the siblings would tag along because her eldest sister, Pauline, would stay back to help her mother with chores and responsibilities around the house.
Hong credits Pauline and her husband Jack Chan, and his brother, Don Loo, for keeping the farm running over the years.
Pauline and Jack are now in their 70s, and Don is 67. After years of working, they are now ready to retire, explains Hong.
“[Don] is the one that’s in charge of the farm, and he wanted to retire,” she said. “[Don] put a lot of years helping us out on the farm ever since he came to Canada.”
This was certainly a factor behind the farm’s closure.
Hong also notes that they were planning to try and open this year, but hiring and retaining farmworkers also became a larger issue.
“There’s only so few of us. There’s my brother-in-law, my sister, myself, and my nephew. We’re the only ones left there doing it,” she says, adding that her sisters and other family members do come out and help when they are able.
“And if you hire people, it’s so much training. You think it’s easy because farming is a hands-on job, something you can learn. But when you’re used to working for so many years on the farm, of course, you do things a certain way or whatever you’re taught. … It’s just hard to find people who want to do that kind of work.”
The farm officially announced it would be closing its retail operations on March 21 and posted a heartfelt message on Facebook. Hop On’s nursery remains in operation as a distributor to other nurseries and farms around Metro Vancouver.
“This was a very difficult decision, but the time has come for the backbones of our business to begin their long-awaited and well-deserved retirement. Faced with many challenges over the years, we always managed to overcome them, but the long hours of physical labour on the farm has taken its toll, and now it’s time for some R&R,” reads the announcement.
“We will miss serving all of you, as you made coming to work pleasurable and rewarding. You were more than just our customers, you became our friends.”
The post was flooded with over 300 comments from folks expressing how much they will miss visiting Hop On, providing a glimpse into what the farm and the Hong family have meant to the local community.
“I can’t even talk about it, I’m gonna cry. … Reading all these comments, I feel like I’m in mourning, I’m grieving. I still don’t know how to describe it,” she says.
But one thing Hong knows for certain is how worthwhile all the years of planting, seeding, growing, harvesting, watering, propagating, weeding, and running the farm has been.
When asked about how it feels to have carried on her grandparents’ legacy, her answer comes quickly.
“I’m proud,” she says. “I’m really proud we’re recognized in Burnaby.”
Note: Hop On Farms will re-open from May 5 to 8 for a special Mother’s Day hanging basket sale. Details here.