Joey Vander Kooi has worked as the facilities co-ordinator in York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design since completing his undergraduate degree at McMaster University four years ago. But his workday is far from over when he clocks out of his nine-to-five.
When he’s not spending his evening hours taking courses in York’s Bachelor of Disaster and Emergency Management program, this tireless 29-year-old who describes himself as a "lifelong student" is slipping on his gardening gloves and taking care of business on his family farm in Kettleby, Ont., just north of Toronto.
Growing up in the nearby Holland Marsh, a wetland known for its agricultural riches, farming has been a part of Vander Kooi’s life for as long as he can remember. “But never with animals,” he explains. “It was more like vegetables and gardens and whatnot. I have always helped my parents with that and I used to have a summer job doing groundskeeping, so gardening has always been a hobby of mine.”
And there is plenty of gardening to be done at his farm. While lettuce, tomatoes and squash are the family’s primary crops of choice, they’re also trying a bit of corn this year despite past disappointments. “Raccoons tend to eat those right before they’re ready, so they never turn out too well,” says Vander Kooi. They also grow flowers for the family business, Country Lane Floral Design, run by his mother and sister.
The family dialled its hobby farming up a notch seven years ago when they moved to their current property, an old farm house with a barn perfect for raising animals. “After we moved here,” says Vander Kooi, “some friends of ours who moved out west had sheep they were trying to get rid of, so we adopted them and that’s how we started our little hobby farm. We also now have chickens and rabbits.”
Animals ended up being a very welcome addition to Vander Kooi’s life on the farm. He loves getting to see their individual personalities come out – especially the sheep, who he says all have different temperaments, from cuddly to skittish. “The guy who sheers them said he’s always amazed at how comfortable our sheep are around people, so I guess they’re spoiled and get lots of attention,” Vander Kooi says with a laugh.
But as fun as farming can be, it’s also a lot of responsibility. Vander Kooi estimates that around 20 hours a week are dedicated to keeping the farm going, but not from him alone. “It’s a big family effort,” he says, explaining that his parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and even his niece and nephew all contribute to the daily duties. And perhaps the key to it all? He doesn’t consider it work.
“It doesn’t really feel like a chore,” he insists. “It’s more of just something to do to get my mind off of things by focusing on the specific task of either gardening or taking care of the animals…. It’s nice to be in the country and to be outside spending time with the animals on the farm. It’s really good for your mental and physical health.”
And isn’t that exactly the kind of healthy outlet we have all been needing over the past year and a half, since the COVID-19 pandemic turned life as we know it upside down?
Vander Kooi certainly thinks so. But pandemic or not, farming is something he envisions as part of his life forever. And although property size limits how many more animals his family can bring into their little farm community, he does hope to add some smaller animals – maybe a dog, or some ducks – down the road.
By Lindsay MacAdam, communications officer, Communications & Public Affairs, York University
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