Jozé Kouwenberg was 24 years old, married one year, when she and her husband Marius arrived in Nova Scotia in 1979 from the Netherlands.
“We landed in the valley, in Middleton,” she says, “and it was quite a culture shock. We landed on North Mountain and it was quite different from home. First of all, there were no streetlights. Coming here in high heels, I ditched them right away. And my skirts.”
A year later, they headed out to Wallace Bay to check out a pig farm that was for sale. It is an experience that made a lasting impression on Jozé.
“We asked how big the farm was and the owner said, ‘250 acres more or less’. We said, ‘What do you mean, more or less?’ Coming from the Netherlands, every metre is counted. There is so little land, every inch is being used.”
They bought the farm in 1980 and a year later, pregnant and homesick, Jozé went back to the Netherlands for a visit with her large family.
“The funny part was once I saw them all, I wanted to come back. I never looked back after that. Now home is here. It helps that our kids are born here.”
She and Marius have two sons and a daughter, and one grandson. Their eldest son, Vincent, is working on the farm, which is now a dairy farm, and will take over some day.
The decision to get out of pig farming wasn’t one they made happily; the unregulated pork market forced them to find steadier income. They sold their pigs, got a loan and bought a milk quota. That’s when Jozé began selling preserves and vegetables at the Pugwash Farmers Market.
“It started after this whole pig collapse,” she says. “I needed some money. All the money was tied up in the farm and I needed some. With the pigs, I was quite busy. I always looked after the sows and the little ones and my whole day was really busy. When the pigs were gone, I helped out with the cattle and with the milking but it wasn’t as much that I was needed. The tractor work was being done by the kids. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve driven the tractor.”
Now that she is 60 years old and celebrating 35 years in Canada this October, what is the best part of her life?
“That I’m just my own boss and I can work in my garden. I have a big vegetable garden. And I’m a homebody. I like being at home. I raised my kids at home. I never had to bring them to the babysitter. I was always there when the kids came home from school and had to tell a story. When they come home, they want to tell you and they’d come running up to the barn.”
For a young woman who came to Canada with skirts and heels, being a farmer came easily to her because of the way she was raised. Jozé and her siblings learned to take care of themselves at a early age because their father died young.
“I am a great admirer of my mother,” says Jozé. “She brought us all up, eleven kids, by herself. My dad died when the oldest was 16 and the youngest six months. We grew up fairly independent. With eight sisters, we were really a girls family. I was in the middle. The two brothers were the youngest.”
Jozé says their mother brought them up to do things for themselvs, an upbringing that served her well when it came to emigrating to Nova Scotia to become a farmer.
“We repaired our own bikes, we didn’t wait for the boys to fix our tires. I think that was a great life lesson. You learn to fend for yourself and make a life for yourself.”
When it came to her own children, their involvement in 4-H helped Jozé learn a new language.
“It was good for me, coming from the Netherlands,” Jozé says. “We didn’t speak very much English. It helped to get involved with the kids doing school projects and 4-H to learn to speak. I still have a very strong accent and I don’t think I’m ever going to lose that!”
With her children grown and her son helping Marius with the farm, Jozé has been able to pursue a new pasttime: hiking. She says she got the bug when her daughter graduated from university in Ontario in 2005 and she joined her and friends on a hike through the Grand Canyon.
“That was such an experience. It was such a special trip. That was when I started talking to Nellie [Vanderweil] and she had done some hiking so she gave me some tips and her backpack. From there, I got hooked. I loved it.”
She hikes with a dedicated group of local women.
“We clicked together. Every year, we try to do two big hikes, in the spring and in the fall. You can hike anytime, anywhere. You don’t need much equipment; that’s overhyped. If you have a good pair of shoes, you’ll be fine.”
So when the request came last fall for the women to join Pugwash Ground Search and Rescue, Jozé didn’t hesitate. Her first call out? To the search at Spider Lake near Halifax for a missing cyclist. She participated in the search on the first and final days and says the terrain was challenging.
“We had our basic training and we had our First Aid but you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into,” Jozé admits of the trial-by-fire experience. “I got really beaten up and I wondered if I was in way over my head. But then you collect yourself and look at it again, know to be a bit more prepared. The second day I went, we were flown in by helicopter. I’d never been in a helicopter. We were told we would be out there the whole day and we were. We were flown in and flown out again.”
She also participated in another search a week later. Even though searching is very different from hiking, Jozé knows it’s an essential service.
“I want to keep on doing this. If you imagine that it’s your son is lost, it was hard to see the family. You want to do everything you can to help them out. Yes, it is tough and that first day, I wondered what I was doing there and was I doing a good enough search? But you learn by doing.”
She chuckles as she’s hit by a realization.
“That’s the 4-H training coming out. Learn to do by doing.”