When Michael Brodie first saw a man with a shaggy head of hair and beard giving away free organic vegetables down by Montreal’s Lachine Canal last summer, he decided to pass.
“He seemed very suspect to me, so I avoided it.”
But that bearded man — 35-year-old Ben Williams — kept coming back, using a bike trailer to haul in hundreds of dollars worth of vegetables every week, laying out blankets covered in a colourful array of squashes, herbs, turnips, leeks, beets, leafy greens, bulbs of garlic, onions and potatoes.
Seeing Williams there week after week offering free veggies, Brodie decided to give it a shot and, after a tough financial year, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It allowed me to have a better quality of food this summer than I probably would have had access to otherwise.”
At first, many don’t know what to make of the piles of farm-fresh produce and brightly painted cardboard signs touting “The Shareocracy of the Future.”
But Williams is there to explain his idea to them — to tell passersby in French or English about his vision of a “genuine culture of sharing” that, breaking away from consumerism, is an alternative to capitalism or socialism.
“All we really need is people who care about us, food and shelter — and food comes from the ground and it is actually free,” he said. “We made life more complicated than we had to.
“There’s no obligation, expectation or judgment on anyone. The idea is that, in a genuine culture of sharing, people share because they grew up in a culture of sharing.”
For example, he elaborated, people are welcome to believe in capitalism, but maybe “they’ll change their mind when everyone around them is sharing.”
From backyard gardening to farming for a cause
Williams, born in Ottawa, has lived in Montreal for over a decade, working largely as a bike messenger and part time at Compost Montreal while developing an interest in growing food.
He eventually graduated from backyard gardening to working as a farmhand every season and that’s where his vision started to take shape.
Last year, Williams launched his project, taking up rent-free residence on a farm about an hour outside the city and asking for vegetables in place of a salary.
Being a vegetarian, he had all the food he needed, so he hauled the rest into town and put the produce out on display in a park in the Southwest borough near the corner of Pitt and St-Patrick streets. He was there until the end of October, giving everything away for free.
This year, he realized he could get more vegetables with a salary of about $400 a week.
So, he saved his pay during the weeks leading up to the first harvest of the season and, by mid-July, he was buying $500 a week in vegetables to give away, parking himself under the same tree on the canal’s bike path every week.
Rent-free and frugal, Williams plans to hit the road
Williams uses the Compost Montreal office to stash his stock and sleep while in town. In the winter, he’s been taking care of his uncle’s place in the Yukon, living rent-free and spending little to keep his vision alive.
“I have no phone payments. I have no car payments. I have no rent and I’m vegetarian. I have a budget for things besides vegetables for myself. I’m not above having things that I want or attachments to the system. When I am tired or stressed, I’m still inclined to go buy junk food.”
With this season wrapping up, Williams is looking ahead to the years to come.
He said he plans to take his vision on the road, travelling across Canada to work on farms and share, using a couch surfing website to find places to sleep.
By 2020, he hopes to settle someplace new to distribute free vegetables and promote his idea.
Investing in a rewarding experience
“People respond well to the idea. That’s one of the things that is rewarding to me.”
Some people work all year round, setting aside money for vacation — a rewarding experience at the end of the year, Williams said.
For him, he saves up for a different kind of rewarding experience.
Meeting so many new people and talking about his idea, he said, “makes me feel positive about the world, because I can see people really do care.”
Residents, tourists learn all about sharing
Williams won’t accept cash, trades or gifts to support his cause, but when Leesah Moody showed up with a few homemade goods to share, like banana bread, pickled carrots and salad, he didn’t turn her down.
“I love it because it’s not to feed the poor people,” she said. “It’s to create a culture of sharing.”
Leslie Gurney was cycling by with her partner on Tuesday when they decided to check out the selection. The pair, visiting from British Columbia, stocked up on potatoes, carrots, peppers and eggplants.
Talking with Williams got her thinking about sharing, she said.
“We’re going to share this food with my partner’s daughter and tell her where we got it from. So she’s going to think about it as well. So I love that idea of being human with each other.”
Gérald Collard, who runs a neon-sign-making shop across the street, said he and his staff have not only been enjoying the produce, but also chatting with Williams about his idea.
“We find it is like 25 years ahead of his time,” he said. In decades to come, “we will see initiatives like that — we’ll see systems like that. It will be every day.”