The best laid plans and the path not taken
Daniel Tolj had a plan. A good plan. A very solid life plan. It was sensible and logical. A plan to utilize his considerable skills in the medical field. He planned for this plan. He worked toward this plan. He is goal-oriented, and the plan was in reach.
From an early age, Daniel knew he wanted to become a medical professional, and took time to narrow the field while earning a Bachelor of Science. As a student at the University of Toronto, Daniel would commute to Union Station and walk north on Bay Street, taking note of the plethora of dentist offices. “There were enough dentists; I didn’t want to be lost in the crowd,” he said with his trademark smile.
Degree in hand, he enrolled in Toronto’s Michener Institute – Canada’s English language chiropody school – and upon graduation, planned to continue his education at Philadelphia’s Temple University. He would earn his Doctor of Podiatric Medicine, and practice in large centres, aiming for Boston or Dallas, specializing in foot surgery.
That was the plan for this focused, personable, brilliant city kid.
Which begs the question. Why, as March came in like a lion, was Daniel Tolj walking along the lane at his hilltop farm in Smithfield, heading to the barn to check on spring lambs?
Tammy. She’s why.
Tammy Keller was born and raised in the small village of Denbigh, three hours from the bright lights of Daniel’s Toronto. Her favourite childhood memories involve spending time with her grandmother Anna and hunting and fishing with her father. The family always had vegetable and fruit crops, and raised chickens, cattle, sheep, and pigs to feed the extended family. It was a way of life Tammy embraced, and she continues to draw inspiration from her 87-year-old grandmother who still farms, and whose gardens are still famous.
Leaving the security of Denbigh was a step for Tammy, made easier by the urging of her family doctor Russell Scott, who became a friend and mentor. Dr. Scott invited Tammy to work at his Belleville practice, and then exposed her to different medical disciplines. She had options, and one overwhelming motivating factor – her father Dale had Multiple Sclerosis. “I wanted a job where I had the financial security to do anything he needed and keep him in his home. He loved the outdoors, loved hunting and fishing and taught me that. When he was unable to renovate our home to make it accessible, we did the work while he told us what to do. He had so many talents, and he knew how to pass them along.”
After a placement at a chiropody clinic, she found her path. “I really liked it, but it was never on my radar. Dr. Scott encouraged me to pursue a career in private health care, and this checked all boxes. It was one of the few medical professions where the results could often be immediate. That was so rewarding.”
After two-and-a-half years with Dr. Scott, Tammy enrolled at the Michener Institute. The outdoor girl from Denbigh admits Belleville was a big step, so living and studying in the shadow of Mt. Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto was daunting, and the first few days were filled with once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Tammy remembers the first day, registering for class, seeing a young man half a kilometre away, and a voice saying, “That’s who I’m going to marry.” She laughed it off as another weird city thing, and walked into class, and there was Daniel. That was the first day. The third day was September 11, 2001. “I thought the world was ending. I was already terrified of the bigness of the city but knew I had to be there to achieve my goal. The residence was attached to the school and I didn’t go outside for three months.”
Daniel and Tammy didn’t interact for a while – two years actually – and only then because they both volunteered to do their internship in Ottawa, unbeknownst to each other. Tammy couldn’t get out of Toronto quickly enough. Even then, it was two months before they spoke. “I think we both knew we would be a distraction from our goal,” laughed Tammy.
Eventually, Tammy took Daniel to Denbigh to meet her parents. “Dad really like Daniel and knew he was right for me.” Daniel, who had brought a friend along for the weekend, was given a quick introduction to Tammy’s upbringing. “Dad and I were up early, and he told me there was a partridge in a tree and asked if I wanted to shoot it,” recalled Tammy with a laugh. “Daniel and his friend woke up pretty quickly. Apparently, gun shots meant something different to city kids.”
Daniel and Tammy planned to start a practice together and Daniel knew there was absolutely no way he was ever going to convince Tammy to stay in Toronto. They visited Trenton, which was a neutral halfway point, and both came up with the same place independently. “We knew we were in the right spot,” said Tammy. On March 5, 2005, they opened Quinte Foot Care at 82 Dundas Street in Trenton. Dr. Scott attended the grand opening. He had closed his practice and wanted an office to maintain his WSIB work. For the next two years he worked out of Daniel and Tammy’s clinic, and it’s a time Tammy cherishes.
“Russell was a huge role model for me,” she acknowledged. “He was so much more than a doctor to his community. He served as coroner for decades, he was the mayor of Belleville, he was a developer and farmer and outdoorsman. He showed me I could do anything I wanted. He always loved animals and raised rare breeds, understanding they are important to our heritage.”
Tammy always knew she wanted to farm and prioritized it on her list. First there was school, then establishing a successful career. Daniel shared that. The idea of a farm, though, that was not really on Daniel’s radar. Even with a growing and well-respected practice, he had not abandoned the idea of pursuing a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine at Temple.
When they bought the building for the clinic, they knew it was a perfect for their plans – whichever route they took. An upstairs apartment served as home base for a few years. With plans to head south still under consideration, somehow Daniel found himself heading north.
The Nishnawabe Aski Nation oversees programs for First Nations in Northern Ontario, and Daniel and Tammy secured a contract to provide foot care to remote First Nations communities. Daniel, fresh from his urban life in Toronto, found himself flying to Thunder Bay, then Sioux Lookout, then to isolated communities, some as far north as Fort Severn on Hudson Bay, for a week at a time.
He has made as many as 18 trips in a year, and as few as six, has been delayed due to blizzards in the north while Tammy tended the farm back home. He typically spends a full day heading north and another coming home, if the weather is in his favour and there are no mechanical issues. He lives in the clinics, which are primarily nursing stations staffed around the clock by registered nurses. Physicians visit monthly, optometrists yearly. There are 49 communities on his roster, ranging from 300 to 3,000 residents. Some have road access, some are fly-in only.
The kid from the city loves it, embracing the new opportunities and experiences, including landing in Fort Severn and being told to stay inside because of the polar bears. Ultimately, he appreciates the opportunity to provide care where it is desperately needed. “Diabetic foot care is the major mandate, and diabetes occurs in First Nations people at five times the national average,” reported Daniel.
Daniel treats wounds, performs regular maintenance and minor surgery, and assesses needs. At times, he’ll have to make the call to medivac a patient facing amputations. It’s remote, it’s the Canadian frontier, and often hospitals are many hours away.
Daniel enjoys the clinical work, and the cultural exposure. “There are language barriers, and although most residents speak English, some of the Elders have only limited English. Everyone is respectful of the visiting clinicians. I love going north. I love the change, the work, and the experience. It’s very different with a wide scope of practice. I see a lot more wounds, I do a lot more surgery, and it has helped me perfect the technique.”
He appreciates the landscape, too, seeing the land open beneath him, and realizing in all that vastness, there is an incredible amount of life. Wildlife is still part of the communities, and Daniel is thankful he has been able to witness some of the traditional lifestyle and sense of community. “A successful hunt is followed by a huge celebration, and the harvest is shared among the entire community,” he explained. “Going north is the different pace I need. Even the travel days force downtime on me. We all need elbow room, and I find mine in the north,” Daniel said, perhaps a little surprised at that.
Tammy has found her own escape – one that is quickly consuming every spare moment. In 2009, looking for a weekend retreat, the couple fell in love with a 115-acre farm with a run-down house in Smithfield, with a panoramic view of Brighton Bay.
Daniel and Tammy thought it would be a nice weekend retreat, and maybe eventually they’d plant a few trees, have a vegetable garden, and eventually a few chickens for eggs and a couple of sheep to keep the grass under control.
That was the plan.
After extensive renovations, the weekend getaway became home. The seven sheep grew to a larger flock of White Dorper sheep, co-pasturing with four Sharplaninac livestock guardian dogs, and the single most diverse herd of Kunekune pigs in the world. To Tammy, it was just a natural progression. She always wanted a farm, loves working with animals, and with Dr. Scott’s mentoring and guidance, looked to rare heritage breeds.
Besides, Daniel wanted to plant fruit trees, so technically, it could be his idea. “We bought the farm and planted cherry trees, and I came across an ad for orchard pigs. Every orchard needs pigs,” she laughed, knowing Daniel probably isn’t going to buy this theory.
More research quickly had Tammy falling in love with the Kunekune breed. They are small, they graze without rooting, they are an old breed from New Zealand. They are friendly, absent of aggression, and easily managed. The sows are naturally good mothers and the boars respectful and docile. They are perfectly suited for small farms, and their meat is prized around the world – lauded for its flavour, marbling, and texture. They were everything Tammy wanted and more, because they were extremely rare in Canada – only two bloodlines at the time – and quite new to North America. This was Tammy’s chance to put her science to work to improve the breed and fulfill her lifelong dream of farming.
They started with Martin from Alberta. He was to be half of a breeding pair, but his lady friend didn’t arrive. Tammy turned to the United States Kunekune Pig Registry, sent an email, and heard back from its president, Lori Enright, who has a Kunekune farm in California. With Lori’s help, Tammy found friends for Martin, who quickly became comfortable in his new home. “He was spoiled rotten,” Tammy and Daniel agree. Martin soon had seven new friends. “I was still trying to figure out if this was for me,” she admitted.
It was. Last year, Lori visited Ivanleigh Farms to examine Tammy’s herd. By the time she left, she and Tammy decided to rewrite the confirmation guidelines for the registry. Before long Tammy was the president of the American Kunekune Pig Registry. Ivanleigh now has pigs representing all 24 bloodlines in the world, which is remarkable. In 1979, there were only 18 Kunekune pigs left in the world. Anywhere. Total. Now there are more than 200 at Ivanleigh Farms alone, and the breed is healthy, regulated, and in high demand.
The farm and clinic are both full-time vocations, and although Tammy has reduced her clinic hours slightly, her commitment to the practice is unwavering. Time spent away from the farm is easier, knowing Daniel’s father Mike is there most of the week, looking after the animals. A retired transmission technician, his expertise with equipment and unstoppable work ethic are very much appreciated by his son and daughter-in-law. When Daniel is in the north, Mike is with Tammy at the farm, and there is immeasurable comfort there, too.
Tammy’s dream of a few animals has grown into an internationally recognized operation with the largest and greatest variety of genetics on the planet. “It’s developing very quickly, and the opportunities presented are unbelievable,” she said, glowing as she explained there is a new colour recognized in the registry – the Ivanleigh blended belly band.
The coalition also resulted in the Kunekune Preservation Project, tracking markers for the breed, from birth and weaning weight to loin thickness and back fat. Tammy, naturally, is the director.
Not content to simply develop the best Kunekune genetics in the world, Tammy was driven to find ways to farm better. It stared with the dogs, which are natural deterrents for predators, including the coyotes who eye her sheep on a regular basis. Imported from Serbia, Austria, France, and Alberta, she is considering a breeding program for them. For now, they are an integral part of the herd, guardians and friends.
Seeking natural options, such as providing grazing space, co-pasturing, and sustainable and environmentally-friendly breeds caught the attention of several agencies, who provided a stamp of approval after a thorough audit of the operation. Ivanleigh Farms is certified Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), and raises Certified AWA Kunekune pigs and Certified AWA and Certified Grassfed by A Greener World White Dorper sheep. Ivanleigh is also certified predator friendly and wildlife friendly, the first in Ontario and the second in Canada to achieve that designation. “Animals raised outdoors on pasture are stronger, more resilient to disease, bright eyed, and alert – just as they should be,” Tammy added.
High-welfare, pasture-based management is central to the ethos at Ivanleigh Farms. “Our practices are neither conventional or standard, nor large-scale commercial. We take time and care to ensure the production of our products satisfy the needs of our livestock and ideals of our customers,” explained Tammy. “Striving to achieve the best, we always ensure our animals come first. We breed and raise our animals in a stress-free atmosphere and provide a natural environment so they carry out their normal instinctive animal activities. We are strict from the standpoint that our animals must be raised with the dignity, respect, and the high-welfare treatment they deserve while also caring for the environment and wildlife that surrounds us.”
Ivanleigh Farms choose to pursue AWA certification because they felt it was a way to validate and confirm their farming practices, “We do not always have the pleasure of knowing all our customers on a first name basis, although those who know us know how we operate,” says Tammy. “AWA certification opens a whole new world for potential customers to get to know us while having the peace of mind that our product and livestock are certified and raised according to the highest standard of care. After initially reviewing the AWA standards, we saw many of the areas of focus were things we had implemented in our management program from its inception. It is the perfect fit for us.”
Finding a perfect fit is a recurring theme at Ivanleigh. While Daniel thought city life and advanced research in his chosen field was his future, Tammy showed him a new path, and it’s one he acknowledges is the culmination of their families and their future.
“We both grew up with fathers who sacrificed financially, spiritually, and physically to help us,” noted Daniel. “We wouldn’t be here without them.”
He knows, too, what the animals mean to Tammy. “I see the joy it brings to her, and that makes it my joy. I’m always going to be here for Tammy and her dream.”
Daniel paused for a second, needing to share one more thought. “This isn’t what I planned, but I don’t think my life would be as complete and enjoyable had I followed my original path. This is enchanting; it’s fulfilling.”
Photography by Daniel Vaughan