THUNDER BAY— The new president of the OFA is a first-generation farmer who grew up on a farm and who told her mother at 13 that she’d never marry a farmer, Dutchman or someone from her church, and ended up doing all three.
Thunder Bay-area dairy farmer Peggy Brekveld was elected by the board of directors in November. She’s the third female president in the organization’s history, elected by the board for the first time after the OFA changed its bylaws this year. The first two female president were Brigid Pike and Bette-Jean Crews.
She grew up on a mixed farm at Thunder Bay, where her parents raised laying hens, meat birds and rabbits, milked goats and raised draft horses. Her father worked off-farm as well but it was no hobby farm. “We were selling more goat’s milk out of the back door at the time than in all the Safeways,” she said, alongside raising 200 laying hens and two flocks of 100 meat birds a year. In the winter they ran sleigh rides with the draft horses.
But Brekveld said she helped out more in the kitchen than in the barn growing up. “I have learned to really like farming even more, but it has been through looking through other people’s eyes.”
“I like farming but I like farmers even more. One in particular,” she laughed. She met her husband when she was still young. An immigrant from The Netherlands who came to Canada in search of land as a student and then a farmhand, they had married, had their first child and bought a dairy farm when she was 19 and he was 26.
It was a crash course in farming and independence. “My experience with farming was really learning on the go,” and she soon learned not just about bookkeeping and milking but the value of community. From the farmer who held the mortgage for them because he knew them through church to that difficult first year where a neighbour dropped off a bale of straw, others explained through actions, not words, how important a strong ag community is.
That goes for family too. While she still milks cows, her husband and kids step up to help out, allowing her to take on more responsibilities with the OFA. She’s been on the OFA board for nine years; three as a regional director for Northern Ontario and seven as a director-at-large.
One of the best but toughest lessons she learned was about time management: when you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. She first heard it during her time with the Advanced Agriculture Leadership Program. Working with the OFA has reinforced it. She used to sing in a choir. Without the time for that anymore, she gets her fix singing to the cows and in the shower. It’s also taught her the importance of delegating and playing to one’s strengths, since there’s only so many hours in the day and not enough time for everything.
And being able to set priorities that will pay off has been profitable for the farm. Starting with 35 head in a tie-stall, they’ve since grown to milking 75 cows in a parallel parlour on compost-pack bedding. They invested in the bedding to improve cow comfort because “that’s where your dollars come from.” The farm doesn’t have brand-new machinery because that won’t make them money, she said. As long as what they have works reliably, it’s good enough. She figures that building a bigger barn to make room for a different bedding system was probably the best business decision she and her husband ever made.
The early days were tough. Simply dealing with cash flow on the fledgling farm was her biggest-ever business challenge, she said. They had put their small savings into buying the operation and had to make it work. The occasional farm visitor who asked if their parents were around didn’t help much. The irony is that Brekveld’s mother hadn’t started farming until she was in her 50s. “You can’t always understand someone’s perspective or where they’re at based on their age. (But) you can certainly learn a lot from people by asking them good questions.”
As OFA president, Brekveld said she has three priorities: protect farm resources, especially the land farmers farm with long-term planning; invest in infrastructure like broadband Internet service; and make sure farmers are healthy and have the resources to get through tough times, especially when it comes to mental health. The OFA’s role, she said, is to represent and lobby for farmers, and that works best when farmers are engaged and sharing their stories.