As originally printed in Peterborough This Week
KEENE — Viren D’Souza knows his way around the fields and barns of Peterborough County’s farm country well, but none are his.
The Keene resident makes his living fixing robotic milking equipment on dairy farms — a career he built for himself when he had trouble finding work after college. Now, nearly a decade later, he’s as much a part of the area’s agriculture sector as the farmers he works with. And while he doesn’t have any crops to worry about during harvest season, or any animals to turn out to pasture, Mr. D’Souza makes his living from the industry all the same and he’s just as passionate about its future.
Unlike many of his peers, it’s not a passion that was handed down to him — it was one he found and fostered himself.
Mr. D’Souza was born in Kuwait and emigrated to Canada with his family as a child. He ended up working with his father at the Keene General Store, which happens to serve one of Peterborough County’s farming communities.
“Through the store, I knew a few customers who had farms,” he says. “I thought I would try something different and I went and helped them out a little bit.”
When it was time to start thinking about a career path, Mr. D’Souza says crop prices were down and the farming industry was in a lull, so he applied to become a police officer.
As fate would have it, he didn’t pass the physical test.
Not knowing whether he would give the test a second run after a six-month waiting period, he headed to New Zealand, where he once again gravitated to the farming community. He drove tractors, milked cows and learned how to shear sheep — a skill that still earns him some side jobs when he has the time.
“It was the hardest course of my life,” he says. “I had muscles aching that I didn’t even know I had.”
In order to shear a sheep, you have to hold a sheep in place by their legs — with the idea being that the way you hold the sheep is supposed to help it relax, although that’s not always the case.
“In the beginning you’re using your muscles,” he says. “When you know what you’re doing, you’re using finesse.”
Back home, he enrolled in college, first taking television broadcasting. He volunteered in the industry and couldn’t find any promising job prospects.
He went back and enrolled in an electrical program, but that didn’t turn up any jobs either.
“I had a hard time finding a job in that field because it was very much who you knew,” he says.
Instead of heading back to college for a third time, Mr. D’Souza started making some calls to milking equipment dealers, thinking it could be the perfect way to mesh his farming and technical experience. He landed a job with a dealer in Prince Edward County, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The job saw him travel and work on farms from Hastings to Kingston. A few years later, when the company sold, he became a free agent.
“I learned that if you know what you’re doing, it’s not hard to find work,” he says. “Somebody once called me a soldier of fortune in the milking industry.”
Over time, Mr. D’Souza says the electrical component of his job has become about 10 to 15 per cent of the skill set that’s required to do his job.
“You also have to be thinking about the mechanical side of it, about animal health issues, about cleaning the system — because sometimes that’s what the problem is,” he says. “Being able to problem solve is probably more important that what you took in college.”
He has helped install and repair milking systems on farms from the Ottawa Valley to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, giving him a first-hand look at how the Canadian agriculture sector works.
With contacts across the country, Mr. D’Souza keeps his ear to the ground on issues affecting the industry, and through social media, he’s become a voice for the dairy sector, sharing farmers’ concerns and successes.
“Farming has a good story to tell,” he says. “And I enjoy telling it.”
Given his experience and passion, Peterborough Agricultural Society president Ryan Moore says Mr. D’Souza is an asset to the area’s farming community.
“I call him an encyclopedia of agriculture,” he says with a laugh. “He seems to know a little about everything.”
Mr. Moore says it’s not often he comes across people who are genuinely interested in agriculture, without owning a farm.
“He has something to contribute to the conversation,” he says. “And that’s pretty hard to find.”
Mr. Moore is the midst of trying to convince Mr. D’Souza to join the agricultural society’s board of directors.
He says the lack of agri-education available to the community is one of the farming community’s top concerns and priorities — it’s an issue Mr. D’Souza agrees needs some attention.
“It’s about people not really knowing where they’re food comes from,” he says. “And (Mr. D’Souza) gets that.”
This year, Mr. D’Souza worked with a handful of others as part of the Fearless Marketing Team to help promote and publicize the Peterborough Exhibition.
Mr. D’Souza says he’s looking forward to seeing how the annual event can become even bigger next year.
In the meantime, Mr. D’Souza says he plans on continuing his work on dairy farms, as well as any other farming jobs that come his way.
“I still don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”