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They farm better because they travel, say Alex and Kelty and Jordan and Alyson McKay. Besides, it makes life so much richer

After catching the travel bug before they were old enough to drive, Alex and Jordan McKay made seeing the world a priority during their early 20s and 30s. With the encouragement of their parents, they took every opportunity to travel they could.

There had to be compromises, naturally. With a thriving farm business to run and all hands needed on deck during the busy summer season, there were realities that kept them at home through large chunks of the year. Plus, the brothers’ parents had insisted that the two go to university and come back with degrees so they’d have options should the farm not be their first choice or not prove feasible for their future.

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Still, they chose their own paths. For his part, Jordan began teaching downhill skiing as a part-time job when he turned 16, and he continued to teach part time while at university. Once he completed his degree in agricultural business, he moved to British Columbia to spend a season teaching at a resort near Vernon.

That then transformed into seasonal travel for the next seven or eight years with a private ski school that took him to Utah, Australia and Japan. “It was my dream winter job and it tied in very well with the seasonality of our farm business at the time,” says Jordan.

By contrast, after completing his degree in forestry in 2008, Alex returned to the farm near Port Perry, Ont., right away, just as he had always intended.

That meant a change of lifestyle for his girlfriend Kelty, who had grown up in London, Ont.

With her great love of the outdoors and also a degree in forestry, she had expected to end up in a natural resources career, not as a farmer.

“If you had told me in high school that I’d live and work on a farm I would never have believed you,” says Kelty. “I did come here one season with a friend so I knew what it was all about… I lived here with Alex’s parents for a couple of months working, and really enjoyed it.”

“It felt like we were living in National Geographic,” says Kelty, here with Alex and children Ian and Roddie. “We’d like to bring up our kids as global citizens,” she adds.
photo: Deb DeVille

Alex and Kelty also had a strong desire to travel, so the family business as it operated at the time gave them the perfect opportunity. Both were around during the busy summer months, when the farm not only grew vegetables and raised beef but also operated a seasonal on-farm market.

Then the winter months were free for travel.

Getting harder as the years go by

There are other realities too.

Since their highly successful farm business — Willowtree Farm at Port Perry, Ont. — has become a year-round operation, it’s more of a challenge to get away to travel.

They knew this would become a factor, but they also had to assume responsibility for managing the whole operation earlier than they’d expected, following the unexpected death of their mother to cancer three years ago, and their dad a year-and-a-half later.

The 350-acre, third-generation farm grows 150 acres of fruits and vegetables, and raises beef and lamb that’s processed at the on-farm butcher shop, and is sold through farmers markets, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and the year-round, on-farm retail store.

Jordan and Alyson are busy with the retail and marketing side of the business, Alex runs the farm and Kelty divides her time between the CSA, kitchen, farm work and their children, Ian (four) and Roddie (18 months).

Life is busy for each of them. But travel retains its allure, and they’re ready to take on the compromises and to build the good relationships with employees — and to do the hard work — needed to allow them to continue to travel, which is as important to them now as it was during their early 20s.

The couple consider themselves to be global citizens and are raising their kids to be the same. Their first son, Ian, was only three weeks old when they took him to Honduras for Jordan and Alyson’s wedding. Last year, they took Ian (then three) and Roddie (eight months) to Cuba. This year they are all going to Lisbon and plan to drive through Portugal and Spain. “Both of our mentalities were to go out and try new things, learn from other people and see how the whole world works instead of just being in your one little spot or comfort zone,” says Kelty.

“We’d like to bring our kids up as global citizens and have them have some of those experiences growing up.”

The couple has travelled to South America, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South East Asia, sailed the Caribbean islands and climbed the Himalayas, but one of their favourite trips was Eastern Africa.

“It felt like we were living in National Geographic,” says Kelty. “There’s so many images in your mind about a place and when we got there we were dumbfounded, we were in shorts and T-shirts and we went high in elevation and everyone was wearing blankets and balaclavas and there was snow on the ground. We’d had no idea there was snow in Africa.”

Managing the 350-acre, third-generation farm understandably keeps both couples busy, but travel retains its allure.
photo: Deb DeVille

A highlight for Kelty was her face-to-face encounter in Uganda with an endangered gorilla. “One gorilla approached me and scratched my back and it just felt like you’re looking into the eyes of your own species…something I’ll definitely never forget.”

Equally unforgettable, however, are some of their Canadian experiences, including flying to the north tip of Baffin Island.

“It was eye-opening, the living conditions, the food insecurity, that there was something like that here in Canada,” says Kelty. “Everyone thinks that we’re crazy to travel in Africa and these Third World countries, but there at the highest tip of Canada was probably the worst living conditions that we had seen in all of the 43 countries we’ve been to. A rotten cabbage was $36. A bottle of water cost $5. There’s very limited food on the shelves… everyone doesn’t think that happens here in Canada, but it does.”

Forewarned by Kelty’s sister who lived and worked there, the couple took several hockey bags full of diapers, baby clothes and formula, and hockey equipment with them for the residents, as well as fresh strawberries, asparagus, maple syrup and other fresh produce from their farm.”

Learn how to budget

Having supportive parents is vitally important for young people who want to travel, and in some cases that might extend to help with financing, but not always.

Jordan believes that farm kids may have a bit of an advantage because they often have ready-made employment opportunities that other kids don’t, and are able to save money from an early age.

“As a single guy living at home on the farm and working on the farm,” he says, “it’s a lot easier to save money at a young age than someone living in a city where there’s a lot more places to spend your money, or for someone with a young family starting out.”

A farm background can not only make it more practical to travel, says Jordan and Alyson, it can increase the rewards as well.
photo: Deb DeVille

Kelty and Alex’s philosophy was to work hard all summer and save for their winter travels. “We are very fortunate that our parents had other houses on the farm which we were able to live in. So our accommodations and things like that were taken care of when we were working on the farm. We did it when we were younger and we didn’t have all the costs that we do now with our own family.”

Budgeting for a trip isn’t an exact science because there’s no telling what may pop up, but Kelty says they start out by referring to websites like Lonely Planet, which has excellent information on a variety of countries and regions around the world. It has planning tools including information about visas, how to get around, accommodations, things to see (both on and off the beaten path), travelling with kids, and currencies and costs, with suggestions about what to allow as a daily budget.

“We’d budget a little, so how much it costs per day and then we’d have a certain limit for extras and other things that we wanted to do,” says Kelty. “The other thing was we did leave money here in Canada, so if there was an emergency our parents could send us money.”

Prepare for the unexpected

The McKays never travel without a visit to their doctor for any shots, or without travel insurance even though they’ve rarely had to claim on it, not even for a hospital trip in Columbia. “Their medical system paid for our treatment. And that’s a similar experience that we have had all the times that we’ve had to receive treatment… but I wouldn’t travel without medical insurance.”

Some countries require visas, so it’s important to check well in advance of travel, and they recommend learning all the details for each country.

Take essentials, like passport, money and some clothes, but Kelty advises travelling as light as possible, because often it’s possible to buy what you need — and cheaply — at your destination.

“When we showed up in Lesotho it was cold, so we got the blankets that everyone was wearing and had them while we were there,” she says. “Pretty much anything that you need you can find in a place.”

The main thing you need is an open mind, she adds. “It’s probably the most important thing to have in your backpack.”

Bringing the world home

Travelling isn’t only about the experiences for the McKays. It’s also about the innovations, ideas and concepts that they can bring back to enhance their farm business and reinforce their philosophy of providing fresh, healthy, local food.

That can be about field management, the same way you might learn from watching a neighbour here, except magnified. Or it might be about marketing. For Jordan, it was seeing cultures where consumers buy local and fresh, instead of filling their freezers.

After all, that’s the marketing model they’ve set for their Ontario farm. “When I went to Japan, the first thing I noticed was the shopping carts are the size of our shopping baskets,” he says. “That ties in with our business really well.”

Coming from a direct retail background, and having worked farmers markets all his life, Jordan says his travels have taught him how North Americans have lost much of their food culture and are simply stockpilers.

“I was impressed by how Australia supports their local agriculture,” he says. “When I was there in the mid-2000s, the farmers were the stars; people were passionate about their food coming from the country, and I feel like in North America that’s just starting to catch up now.”

Any farmer will also find themselves picking up skills and insights pertinent to their own farms — sometimes including highly individualistic skills that they might have trouble acquiring in other ways.

As they’ve grown, for example, the McKays now have over 90 seasonal and full-time employees, including three butchers and year-round retail staff. Many are temporary foreign workers, which was part of the impetus for Alex and Kelty’s first trip, the year after they were married, to Latin America.

“We wanted to learn Spanish because we wanted to be able to talk and hang out with our workers on a different level than just like saying ‘hello, nice day’ or ‘good morning,’” says Kelty. “Learning Spanish brought them from just being employees into being family. We had guys living in our house every year with us so we could sit down and eat dinner with them and get to know them on a completely different level. I know how many kids they all have, their names, they’ve sent pictures, and we continue to talk on Facebook when they’re back in Mexico. I wouldn’t want it any other way; I can’t imagine just having people living on your farm that you can’t talk to.”

But it would also be a mistake to undersell the life-quality benefits of travel.

Besides learning Spanish, that first trip ended up as an adventure that set a standard for the way the couple were to travel in the future. Alex and Kelty bought a couple of backpacks and hitchhiked, took buses, boats and any mode of transport to get them through Mexico and Central America to Columbia.

“We had no end goal, we just knew what time we needed to be back for and wanted to see how far we could get with aspiration of also learning Spanish while we were away,” says Kelty. “We had no plans other than that. With that type of travelling you really get to immerse yourself in the culture and take every opportunity that comes at you.”

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