As the tenth of 11 children, Peter Versteege, 72, had to be resourceful growing up. He was born in a small village in the Netherlands in the wake of the Second World War, and had to work to help support his family.
“We learned from a very young age that we all had to contribute to the family, so, in the summer times, I was working in the bulb fields and the money that I was making went to mother. Let’s say you make 100 bucks, and then you give Mom 100 bucks, and then you get $5 back for your pocket money,” he said.
As a child, he wanted to raise rabbits in addition to his own section of the garden. His father agreed, but only if he could build an enclosure. Back then, walking over to a hardware store was not an option, so Versteege scavenged the beaches of the North Sea for washed up supplies and spent hours straightening used nails.
His cage failed his father’s first inspection, but after a few improvements it was good to go. Next to Holland’s famous bulb fields, Versteege bred and kept between 30 and 50 rabbits.
“We always had rabbits for dinner, and I managed to sell rabbits, particularly towards Christmas time,” he said.
“So I was an entrepreneur at, you know, 5,6,7 years [old] … that was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot.”
When he graduated high school, he attended the Marine Academy in Amsterdam for two years and joined the merchant marine, sailing between Europe and Asia. He visited places like Japan, China, Indonesia and Korea. He realized that the longer he sailed the high seas, the harder it would be to find a job on dry land, so he quit after a couple of years and travelled to Israel and worked in a kibbutz near the Jordan border. The settlement was operated by around 30 adults, all in their 20s.
“They ran a multi million dollar operation. Fish ponds, dairy, turkeys, cotton fields, big orchards. You name it … when you watch that, and how they operate it was a good experience, a good learning experience.”
He returned home and started working in the field of computers, eventually working up to the role of systems designer. He moved to Canada in 1978, working in Logan Lake, B.C. in the computer department of a local mine. Versteege bought an acreage, fixed it up and eventually sold and moved to Richmond.
He moved to Whitehorse in the early 1980s, where he managed IT for the White Pass and Yukon Corporation. There, he met his future wife, Gina.
When it came time for the two of them to take a vacation, Versteege took Gina on a trip to Israel. Armed with a souvenir ring, Versteege took Gina on a hike up Masada mountain. She was terrified of heights, and had to scoot across a suspension bridge to get to the north column. There, in 45 C heat and covered in sweat, Versteege proposed.
“She always expected, ‘well, when he’s going to ask me we go out for a nice dinner, candlelight and I’m dressed up’ … she still has that souvenir ring, that was a fun thing, it was great.”
Then in 1988, the couple moved to Vancouver Island, where Versteege undertook the monumental task of automating the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
In addition to running his business, Versteege Consulting Inc., he returned to his agricultural roots and opened Thistledown Nursery in Mill Bay. Versteege became well known in the area for his hanging flower baskets and landscaping design, even winning the People’s Choice award at the Victoria Garden Show at Royal Roads and sweeping the hanging basket categories.
But then a major storm in the winter of 1996/97 destroyed his greenhouses.
“All the houses were gone, all collapsed, it was all twisted steel, and then, well, you think about what am I going to do now? Of course, you’re not insured. The insurance company says I had insurance, but [then] the insurance company says no, this is an act of God.”
Armed with a bank loan and a drive to repair the nursery, Versteege went right to work.
“You put your mind to it. That’s what it is. Just get it done. Get it done. And, you know, you’ll allow yourself one day to cry. And then that’s it. I’m finished crying,” he said.
“So we brought in a crew to clean out all the wreckage of all the greenhouses, and then bought new greenhouses and built them. And amazing, you know, that happened in the end of December. And by sometime in April, we were back in business.”
In 2004, there was more adversity in Versteege’s life when Gina needed several spinal surgeries. Versteege sold the nursery and went to work designing a home that would be more suitable for Gina. For five years, the couple worked together through the rehabilitation process.
“Really, really tough, tough therapy. But it got better and better, and she got to about 90 per cent of her mobility and movement, walking. So we decided, ‘well, we got through this. We’re ready for the next challenge.’”
That challenge came in 2010. Versteege came to Terrace to help his longtime friend Ian Christison run Daybreak Farms and took over as farm manager.
“I took Gina up for a trip, showed her Terrace and, quite frankly, the first impression [of] Terrace was in our view, depressed and depressing. I said, ‘but Ian needs me. I can do a lot of things with Daybreak.’ So we committed ourselves for five years.”
He worked to modernize the operations on the farm and create relationships with the community in the form of events such the annual Easter Egg Hunt at Heritage Park Museum, plus other fairs and exhibitions.
Those five years turned into six, then seven, then eight. In 2018, Ian was diagnosed with cancer. Versteege mentored Ian’s daughter, Kieran to take over the farm. The transition was successful and he stepped into retirement in 2020.
Since his retirement, Versteege been able to delve into his new hobby of photography. He built a studio in his house to take portraits, and loves taking photos of grizzly bears.
“[Photography] is a learning experience, a learning curve you have to go through. I’ve got myself quite a few online courses and then I have time I will sit down and look at it.”
“I always tell myself, every hobby cost money, right? I could have kids that are playing hockey. Well, can you imagine ice time, equipment, travel and so forth? Well, I don’t have kids in hockey, so yeah, it’s a lot of fun.”
Despite their first impressions of Terrace, Peter and Gina have no plans to leave.
“Terrace is our home! We love the mountains, the rivers, the fishing, and the many friendships we have here.”