By Tom Collins
FOURNIER — Ken and Peggy Wilkes farm near Vankleek Hill and had their future all planned out.
None of their three kids wanted to take over the family farm, so the Wilkes built a new robot dairy barn with the plan to milk for five more years, theorizing that it would be easier, and more profitable, to sell a dairy farm with a robotic milker than an old tie-stall with a track system and automatic takeoffs. It would also be a more attractive future if any of their kids changed their minds. Their daughters, Leigh-Ann and Hannah, live in Western Canada, and Andrew was studying civil engineering at Ottawa’s Carleton University while still helping on the farm.
During a break during corn harvest last fall, Andrew and Ken were sitting in the barn office watching the rain fall when Andrew dropped a bombshell: He wanted to take over.
“He surprised us when he said he wanted to come home and give this a try,” Ken Wilkes said. “We weren’t ready for it. Our transition (plan) was five years and we’re out. Now we’re (asking), ‘how can we grow?’ ”
Anecdotally, across Eastern Ontario it appears that more farm kids are telling their dairy-farming parents that they don’t want to farm and then changing their minds. Maybe it’s because they’re millennials (born in 1980 to 1995) or Generation Z (born in 1996 to 2010), two unpredictable cohorts of Canadians who don’t like staying in one place. According to a 2018 Deloitte survey, 62 per cent of millennials don’t want to be at the same job after five years. Sixty-one per cent of Gen Z don’t want to stay longer than two. It might take a raft of experiences before they see the family farm as their best option.
How can parents plan for that?
Farmers shouldn’t get discouraged when their teenagers say they don’t want to run the farm, Wilkes said. Wait five to 10 years, if you can, for a change of heart. In the meantime, farmers have to continue to be progressive in their operations to make it easier to sell the farm down the road if it comes to that, he said.
His son, Andrew, 24, said he wouldn’t have come home if he had felt forced to. He was driven away from farming during high school when he was forced to miss out on social events because of barn chores. Waking up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings didn’t help. The new barn was also a big factor. He didn’t like the old tie-stall but the new barn was a different story, bright and spacious and filled with new technology.
Andrew interned at Minto Home builders’ downtown Ottawa office, where he sat in front of a computer for 16 months. He couldn’t imagine 25 years in front of a computer screen and said he needed to get away from home to appreciate the farm.
“If you leave by yourself and you find yourself coming back, it’s because you want to be there and not because your parents want you there,” he said. “If your parents tell you you’re coming home, that’s your parents’ life decision for you, not yours.”
The Martins, at Moose Creek, were in a similar situation. None of their four kids wanted to take over and Gaetan Martin was ready to pack it in five years ago. His wife Sonia convinced him to keep farming because she enjoyed the cows and she saw clues that suggested two of their kids might choose the farm. Chanelle studied to be a vet technician and every time she returned home, no matter how late at night, the first thing she did was to go to the barn to check on the cows. Without being asked, she’d also be the first person in the barn the next morning to help with milking and chores.
Meanwhile, Chanelle’s brother Jeremie, was always a keener. At age six, he knew how to run the TMR mixer.
“We saw (the signs) but they just needed to figure it out on their own,” Sonia said. “You know your kids better than anybody else. If you’re healthy and you’re able to run (the farm) for an extra couple of years because you have a gut feeling that one of your kids is going to come back, try and run it for as long as you can. If you’re sick or you’re not able to run it, then that’s a whole different story.”
Darryl Wade, founder of the succession planning company Farm Life based in Peterborough, said that it can help to have a succession planner speak to teenage children about the future to clear up faulty assumptions, especially when it comes to post-secondary education. The children might feel they are being pushed off the farm when they are being encouraged to get an education and see the world first while parents might wrongly assume the kids aren’t interested in taking over because they want to move away to go to school.
“What I see oftentimes is that there’s a communications breakdown early where the parents are not communicating clearly enough to the kids that there’s an opportunity” to come back to the farm when the kids are ready, Wade said.
Wade encourages farmers to write out a family participation plan, where different scenarios are ironed out and everyone knows the rules. This alleviates headaches down the road, such as when one wayward sibling returns home while another has been running the farm for years.
How long should a farmer wait in hope the kids will come home? Not forever.
Hugh O’Neill, financial security advisor and certified agriculture farm advisor with O’Farrell Financial Services at Winchester, tells parents of non-farm-interested teenagers to plan their own lives. “It’s very hard to operate a dairy farm on the premise that maybe somebody might change their mind and come back.”
Children should know if they are coming home by the time they are in their late 20s, and a succession plan should be in place by the time the children are 30 years old and the parents are 60, O’Neill said, as the parents need to ensure their security for retirement.
For a 50-year-old farmer who wants to milk for 10 or 15 more years, it’s not a bad idea to build a new robot barn, said O’Neill. Farmers should also concentrate on paying down debt and investing in RSPs to make the potential future transition a little easier.
O’Neill also recommends starting a succession plan when the kids are teenagers, even if they say they don’t want to take over. That will help later on as everyone will know the ground rules if they want in.