My touchdown in Winnipeg was to specifically work with a small peer group of young farmers from across Canada who are seeking to “bridge the gap” between farm management and ownership generations. Note the delineation between management and ownership here, as it will become more important later.

My role at the BC Dairy Industry Conference was to deliver a strategic farm planning pre-conference workshop relating to farm management and ownership transition, as well as lead interactive breakout sessions on the challenges and opportunities that lay before the next generation of Canadian dairy farmers.

My take-homes from the week are summarized in the following four thoughts.

1. Farms are struggling to build a long-term financial picture

With changes in milk pricing models over the past couple of years, farms are struggling to cope with fluctuating prices and the impact on their annual net income. Historically, stability in how milk prices followed the cost of production made financial projections relatively straightforward. I am not suggesting it was easy, nor is it today, but it is now more important than ever for farm managers to focus clearly on understanding cost of production. This can be done by building a clear and concise chart of accounts and analysing each expense clearly and deliberately.

2. We have not done a good enough job of defining roles and responsibilities on the farm

I am an in-law working on my father-in-law’s farm in New Brunswick. Numerous research studies have proven the challenge of making this relationship work at home and at business. Elaine Froese wrote an entire book on the subject: Farming’s In-Law Factor. It is tough. But it can be done.


Working with family, no matter the relationship, is a challenge. I regularly ask attendees to my workshops, “How do you complete a performance evaluation on a family member?” Without a clearly defined job description, you don’t, unless your ultimate goal is to blow up Christmas dinner. I had a number of fathers and a number of sons (not from the same farm) approach me after the sessions to express their frustrations with how the other gets various jobs done around the farm.

The jobs are being completed, but each generation goes about it in a slightly different way. I can hear Elaine’s voice in the back of my head when these frustrations are brought to the table. “Different isn’t wrong; it’s just different.” How very true.

Does it matter how the job gets done? Not really. Does it matter that we don’t agree? Absolutely. These are the kinds of issues that grind away at us, day after day, causing stress that can’t necessarily be identified easily, but we carry it with us, all day, every day. This is where standard operating procedures become so important. This is where clearly defined roles and responsibilities play such a key function. This is where performance evaluations become possible. This is where harmony can become imaginable. Sit down, discuss it, write it down, hold yourself and others accountable to what was agreed upon, repeat.

3. The interests of non-farming children are weighing heavy on farm transition processes

When it comes to strategic business planning, my approach to the transition planning component (formerly known as succession planning) is to incorporate it into everyday activities. We often get stuck thinking about transition planning as how to move assets over from one generation of owners to the next, and this is important – but not the only factor to consider.

The historical know-how, gleaned through decades of farm management and growth, is an asset the next generation dare not ignore, one the mature generation should not keep locked up tight. We need to consider both management and ownership in a transition plan, and it takes time to see it through.

The third leg of the transition planning stool – being fair to non-farming siblings – has recently become one of the most important topics of conversation around the table. As asset values have appreciated, and farms have grown in size, balance sheets have become quite impressive – to the point everyone is paying attention, whether they work each day on the farm or not. This is another area where regular communications are exceptionally important.

As managers, we know all too well farms tend to be equity rich and cash poor; note, I am not suggesting farms are not profitable, but turning equity into cash comes at a price the farm will ultimately have to pay. Having these discussions with family members in a structured setting may help ease the tension. Farms should consider hosting an annual general meeting and inviting all interested parties to attend. Embrace the opportunity to celebrate your successes, use these opportunities to discuss the long-term family and business goals the farm is striving to attain, and use this time to explore and develop a long-term vision all interested parties can agree to and pull together to achieve.

4. People are struggling

I saw a lot of tears on these travels, more than I have ever seen during a week on the road. Folks are grappling with heavy-hearted issues, both on the farm and off. I have always believed peer networks are vital tools that support personal and business skills development. The chance to learn from other leaders in your field, to share your challenges and opportunities, having a safe place to lay it all out on the table, to let the emotion pour out, to let the tears fall if you can, if you must, is invaluable.

When discussing the major risks folks are facing on their farms, one brave young man stated very clearly his personal mental health ranks in the top five. You don’t have to tackle these challenges alone; if you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, there are people who can help lighten the load – all you have to do is ask. 

I was speaking with a friend and colleague over the weekend about what sets leading farms in Prince Edward Island apart; he suggested the use of advisers to tackle complex issues made these farms more professional, more focussed. I agree wholeheartedly. “Be the best; hire the rest” is a catchphrase I picked up along the way, and it goes to the heart of what I hope all farm managers ultimately aspire to.

Remember, great leaders focus as much on their weaknesses as they do their strengths. If you have weak links on your farm, you cannot afford to ignore them. Reach out, seek support – tackle your biggest challenges head-on. This is what will ultimately define the great leaders of our generation.  end mark

Cedric J. MacLeod is an owner of MacLeod Agronomics Ltd. Email Cedric J. MacLeod.