By Tom Collins
LISTOWEL — Nine years ago, a fire that destroyed the barn and dairy herd left Ralph and Paulette Coneybeare with a tough decision: Either rebuild or quit milking.
None of their five daughters — they have no sons — wanted to take over the family farm. But the couple decided to rebuild as they weren’t done milking. They built a barn with two robotic milkers — they added a third last year — to help with labour issues in the short-term and theorized that it would be easier, and more profitable, to sell the dairy farm down the road. They now milk 115 cows on 700 acres and raise 18,000 broiler chickens every seven weeks.
The Coneybeares also had a succession plan in place since the early 1980s when the farm was incorporated, creating a system to buy and sell farm shares depending on who wanted to take over. They were ready for selling or succession.
So, they were delighted when their youngest daughter, Alanna, phoned them up out of the blue in late 2015 while she was studying political science in her graduating year at the University of Toronto. Then 23, she was mulling over her career options, including studying law, but had already known for several weeks where she wanted to be. Sitting in her basement bachelor procrastinating over an essay to write she asked if they would be interested in her coming home. “They were excited about it,” she said.
Alanna had no intentions of taking over the farm when she first went to university. But in third year, she joined the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, where conversations revolved around making food more sustainable. That’s when Alanna began to catch a glimpse of her future.
“I’ve always been passionate about food and being in that group kind of reinvigorated that,” she said. “It was pretty cool to realize I had the opportunity back home to carry on that conversation in a whole new capacity.”
Anecdotally, it appears that more farm kids across Ontario are telling their dairy-farming parents that they don’t want to farm and then are changing their minds.
Many farmers hold on to farm for a few extra years “to wait and see.” Jeff Hamilton, upon hearing his son say he wasn’t interested in farming, sold the cattle and quota. When his son changed his mind six years later, the duo had to apply for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s New Entrant Program. It took three years to get the quota. They went from owning 42 kg of quota to 16 kg of quota with a deadline to buy 16 kg more.
Another farmer built a new robot dairy barn with the plan to milk for five more years before selling. A year after moving the cows into the new barn, Ken Wilkes’ only son — they have two daughters — decided to come home. They had no succession plan but got one pretty quickly.
Three years ago, John MacLaughlin’s 21-year-old son Angus was studying agriculture but detested milking in the tie-stall. He did not want to come home to farm until his father offered him the opportunity to design a new barn and milking system. They went with two robots in a bright, spacious barn. Milking didn’t look so bad after all.
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?
Don’t pressure the kids, said now 26-year-old Alanna, or, she believes, you will end up with a plan based on animosity.
The Martins, in Eastern Ontario, were in a similar situation. None of their four kids had expressed interest in taking 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 in Sudbury 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.”
Steve Steinman of Father and Son Financial at Wyoming in Lambton County, said oftentimes farmers want their kids to go away to school or work for someone else before making a decision of whether farming is right for them.
Steinman said coming up with a succession plan early is important, even though you don’t have to put the plan in action until someone comes home. It’s also key to discuss early what the succession plan is. He said a farmer might have a succession plan in his head, but his wife, kids and kids’ spouses may all have different ideas. Get it on paper so that everyone knows the rules.
“It really just comes down to communication and the dad just has to ask what they’re thinking about,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many times that doesn’t happen.”
Darryl Wade, who grew up in Southern Ontario and is 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.
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 sibling unexpectedly 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 his or her mind and come back,” he said.
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. That will help later on as everyone will know the ground rules if they want in.
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.