by Vern Faulkner
Those who work the land in any capacity – small or large, specialized or otherwise – typically have a love for the land they work and want to see that land cared for after their farming days are done.
At one time, the task naturally fell to the child in the family, but the days of multi-generational farms are fading, leaving the not-so-young tillers of the soil struggling with succession planning.
“The landscape is way different from what it used to look like,” said Claire May, formerly of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick (NFU-NB). “The traditional generational succession model is less and less prevalent.”
May helped organize a November presentation in Shemogue, N.B., intended to present a number of different potential succession plans.
Creative solutions include grooming non-family members to assume control of the farm, land trusts, and co-operatives made up of a number of individuals who purchase land and work it collaboratively, said May.
Barb Somerville, an NFU-NB director, said the smaller farming operations seem to be the ones “experiencing difficulties” with succession planning.
With fewer farms passing through family ties, the logical alternative is to find unrelated youth to assume control, said Somerville, which leads to the common lament that there’s a lack of young people interested in farming.
She said youth must be reminded and taught that farming can be a viable career.
“We have to encourage people to do it,” said Somerville. “We have to show respect and admiration for the people who (farm), who work hard, and have incredible knowledge … and encourage them to pass it on to the next generation.”
She added that one challenge is that many farms – particularly the smaller operations – are labour-intensive, which means a “lifestyle that may not be particularly attractive.”
That said, there are would-be farmers waiting in the wings, most of whom are women, as both May and Somerville are quick to point out.
Given that small farms provide food for many people – via farm markets, for instance – those women ought to be encouraged, Somerville said. “We need to be able to give them a hand up, as well, and that includes things like daycare, interest-free loans, and advice, (for instance), when you’ve got a problem with your sheep and don’t know what to do.”
Jonathan Kummer has a fascinating perspective to lend. He left his family’s 800-acre Timber River Eco Farms in southeastern New Brunswick, and pursued a mechanical engineering degree, then went on to complete a master’s degree in entrepreneurship.
Yet, with those degrees under his belt, he now yearns for dirt under his fingernails.
“When I was younger, I always enjoyed the farm, but was one of those people that never knew what they wanted to do,” he said. Yet the farm kept tugging at his soul and he’s returned to work his family’s farm, although he said it’s not “necessarily clear that I will be taking it over.”
Regardless of Kummer’s future as a farmer or farm owner, he stressed the need for youth to be better educated on agriculture.
“The one thing is, if you look at high school, farming is never really promoted as much of a career option,” he said. “People who are interested in farming need to gain an understanding of what’s involved.”
Kummer said that education must include the business side of farming.
May said discussions are taking place on how to navigate the future of farming. She said two New Brunswick farmers are investigating a co-op model, whereby a “collection of people ... would work on their land,” and a trio is working on a plan that includes particular roles for each person, whether it’s working the land or overseeing the business’s financial management.
In Moncton, a man, his daughter, and a third partner are working on a business model that would have each work different parcels of the same property, May added.
One of the more interesting examples of creative succession planning is Windy Hill Organic Farm in McKees Mills, N.B., overseen by Alyson Chisholm.
Chisholm said she’s seriously pondering a land trust. That essentially involves leaving the property in the care of another owner, most likely a non-profit group or co-op, with strict guidelines on how the land can be used. It would be achieved through a restrictive covenant, which is a set of limitations bound to the land title.
“The idea is that you can basically designate a use or a limit of use on land,” she said, noting that one can, for example, dictate how trees can be harvested and even “designate it for organic agriculture.” She added, “It’s interesting to me because I don’t have children. And even if I did, who says they’d be interested in farming?”
Chisholm grew up in the Maritimes and started farming 20 years ago in B.C. before obtaining land in New Brunswick in 2009. She wants her land to remain as farmland, to remain, as she puts it, “useful.”
Ideally, she’d like her 45-acre property to be used for training farmers, giving those entering the field a chance to learn “without the costs of ownership.”
But her main goal in any move to a land trust is to ensure the land is retained in a meaningful way for future generations. Chisholm said she’s been thinking about the idea for the last year and a half. “The next 40 years of my life, I am going to spend crafting this, and hopefully get it done before I die,” she said.
N.B. farm land trusts in use
Whidden Ganong, of the family more often associated with chocolates, dictated that some 350 acres of his land in Todd’s Point, N.B., which was farmed in the early 1900s, be retained as a park or agricultural property.
Following his death in 2000, the land transferred to a registered non-profit charity that preserves the property just east of St. Stephen as the Ganong Nature Park. Efforts are now underway to improve the land and return it to active hay growth, provide land for bees, and improve an existing orchard.
A more recent New Brunswick example is the Hayes Urban Teaching Farm on the north side of Fredericton. That project, which is essentially a hands-on farming education program, resulted from a decree in a will that the long-farmed land be retained for that purpose.