Farming Is A Hands-On Hobby

On this Ontario farm, animals are practically members of the family.

By Jodi Helmer | Photos By Jessica Deeks

Some people have only dreamed of doing it, but Blair and Marj Wilkie made it happen. In 2002, the couple purchased 160 acres, and traded dense development and long commutes for wide-open spaces and tractor traffic.

The move came after years of traveling from their house in Brampton, Ontario, just outside of Toronto, to spend weekends in Verner. There, in the small Ontario town some four hours north, near Lake Nippissing, the couple purchased a small dairy.

Marj used her background in training and boarding horses to transform the existing dairy barn and pastures into stables and a riding ring. At one point, the couple had 36 horses on the farm. The business shuttered during the 2009 economic downturn, but the barns weren’t vacant for long.

Building a Farm Family

Their son, Austin, now 13, came home from a sleepover three years ago, clucking, so to speak, about the chickens at his friend’s house and begged his parents for his own flock. Ten red sex-link chicks arrived a few weeks later. It was the start of a hobby farm now known as Wilkie Way Acres.

Since the chickens arrived, the number of residents on the farm—you know, livestock—has expanded significantly and now includes 32 laying hens, a mini horse, three donkeys, one mule, six cows, four goats, two pigs and a flock of ducks. Some of the animals were purchased at livestock auctions; others were bought on the Canadian buy-sell site Friends even “donated” animals that were in need of homes. Each animal has a name and a story.

Take, for instance, Annie. When one of Marj’s friends found her listed for sale on kijiji, the potbellied pig was 8 months old and was so underweight from neglect that she struggled to walk. Then, there’s T-Bone, who got his name because he was supposed to end up in the freezer, but the Scottish Highland cross became a friend instead of food. Austin bid on a flock of Pekin ducks at a livestock auction and planned to resell them. He changed his mind, however, after the ducks arrived on the farm.

“All of the animals have their own personalities, and we love all of them,” Marj says. It’s clear the affection is mutual.

The animals, separated into different pastures based on their personalities as well as their food and shelter requirements, come to the fence to visit, lowering their heads and leaning in. Blair, Marj or Austin typically obliges, scratching them behind the ears or rubbing their backs.

Benny, a bottle-fed Jersey that the family purchased from a local dairy farm in Verner, has been part of the family since the day he was born. The bovine comes bounding from the lean-to shelter when Austin calls his name. “Benny is the best,” Austin says.

All [Farm] Hands on Deck

The farm requires a lot of time and effort, but not just because of typical farm chores. Sure, the family spends time hauling hay, filling water buckets and mucking out stalls. Yet, says Marj, “It takes forever to do chores, because we can’t just feed [the animals] and leave; they all want attention.”

Austin Wilkie helps out with animals on the farm.

As the number of animals on the farm grows, the current paddocks are getting crowded. The Wilkies sold 150 acres to a neighbor in 2009, leaving them with 10 acres. It’s still enough room to fulfill future plans to fence in additional pastures and give their menagerie more room to roam—and accommodate any new livestock that arrives at their ever-expanding private hobby farm.

Tending to the animals never feels like work, though. Marj calls the farm her “happy place,” and Austin has proved to be a capable and enthusiastic farmhand. Both believe they benefit from spending time with the animals, as much as the animals benefit from the attention and affection.

“We lose track of time when we’re out here,” Marj says. “It’s such a calming place.”

It’s also a fun—albeit sometimes frantic—family project. Grandma Bonnie Brewer and Papa Les Brewer relocated to Field, a rural community about 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Verner, one year before the Wilkies moved to the area. Marj says the close-knit family spends a lot of time together.

When produce is in season, Grandma tackles chopping, peeling and preserving fresh produce, and Papa often takes Austin to livestock auctions. During a recent trip, Austin got into a bidding war over a lamb. The other bidder wanted the 4-month-old animal for meat, says Marj, but Papa winked at the man and pointed at his grandson. The bidder then let Austin win. The youngster spent $120 on the lamb with plans to resell her.

“The lamb had been here for about four days and Austin said, ‘I think we should keep her. She completes the farm,’” Marj recalls. Lamby is now a permanent addition to the Wilkie Way Acres family.

Profitable Pastime

The Wilkies’ oldest son, Hunter, 17, is more interested in video games and hanging out with his friends than working on the farm, but he does appreciate the benefits of having pastures of adorable animals outside the back door. “Hunter had a party last summer, and the girls wanted to see the animals, so he took them on a tour,” Blair recalls. “It was the most interest he’d shown in the farm since we moved here.”

Outside of their 9-to-5 jobs, the couple sells eggs and broilers, and tends a 1-acre vegetable garden, turning fresh produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and beans into value-added products, ranging from pickles and salsa to spaghetti sauce, that are also sold on the farm. They plan to add fruit trees and berry bushes with the goal of making jam and fruit preserves.

Marj maintains an active Facebook page for Wilkie Way Acres, sharing details about the availability of eggs, broiler chickens and preserves. Almost all the customers who come to the farm to purchase farm-raised foods spend time interacting with the animals.

Although sales are brisk and the animals are a huge draw, the couple has no plans to farm full time. “It’s small-scale now, and there is the potential for it to grow, but we’re enjoying so much having it as our personal thing,” says Marj.

“We remember from the horses that turning it into a business meant it was no longer a hobby. We feel like this is how it was meant to be.”