Less than 10 per cent of farms have a written succession plan. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

Farmers are getting older and few are planning succession

Maureen Cass sits in her kitchen slicing off slabs of ham she’ll place between two pieces of white bread.  She’ll be leaving soon to go to an appointment in the afternoon.

“I’m making sandwiches today to leave so that they have it for whenever they come in,” she says. She’s talking about her husband Cecil and her son Wayne. “It’s hard to get them in when you want them.”

Just outside the window are the 900-plus acres that make up Cassbrae farms. Nearing on 220 years old, it’s one of the oldest single-family operations in Prescott-Russell. The only other 200-plus-year-old farm, according to Maureen, is the Wyman Farm in Chute-à-Blondeau.

Cass history

Elihu Cass established the family farm in 1798, after buying three lots for a total of six shillings.

Cecil and his brother Leslie began farming there in 1948. Henry Newton, their maternal uncle took over the operations after their father’s health deteriorated considerably. Two years later, the brothers purchased their first land extension and operated as “Cass Brothers.”

In 1955, Cecil married Maureen and the farm grew throughout the 60s and 70s. In 1976, their oldest son, Wayne, was brought on as a partner, and the farm has kept expanding. Cecil and Maureen also have another son and two daughters nearby.

In 2001, the farm converted from dairy to cash crop.

In 2009, Leslie died, leaving the three remaining partners to operate the nearly 1,000-acre cash crop operation. The farm focuses on soybean production now after years of growing corn. It also has 10 beef cows and 10 beef calves.

With all of them now over 60—Cecil is 87—farm succession is a topic the three partners have to think about.

“It’s hard to say what we’ll do,” says Maureen. Cecil, she says, is still “quite active,” though he’s understandably pulled back a little from the physical labour that comes with running a farm. Although, “he’s still behind coaching.”

Their youngest son lives in Rockland and is a firefighter in Ottawa.

“I think eventually he will come back to the farm,” says Maureen. “He’s the only other solution, you know.”

Selling isn’t on their minds right now.

“We’re enjoying it while we’re here; it’s the only place we would want to be,” says Maureen. “It would be too bad to see it go out of the family name, at this stage.”

Succession planning across the board

The Cass family isn’t the only one juggling potential succession plans. And although it seems like something families should be planning long in advance, it generally isn’t. 

According to the Canada’s 2016 Census of Agriculture, only 8.4 per cent of farm operators “reported having a written succession plan.”  The number was lower, at 4.9 per cent, for sole-proprietor farms, and higher, 16.3 per cent, for family and non-family corporate farms.

This is significant because sole-proprietor farms make up more than half (51.7 per cent) of the farms in the country, versus a combined 25.2 per cent for family and non-family corporations. (The remaining 22.9 per cent are partnerships).

Farm operators are also growing older; the average age nationally and provincially is about 55 years old. And operators 55 and over make up 55.1 per cent of all operators in Ontario. “This trend parallels the ageing of the general population,” says the report.

At the same time, though, the number of operators under 35 also went up to 9.4 per cent, or 24,850 of the 70,470 total operators in Ontario.

Not making the same mistakes

Scott Allen just turned 55; he and his wife Faye own Elm Lane Farms, a dairy operation just outside Vankleek Hill.

In 1994, they took over the farm from Scott’s parents. They’ve gone through the process of becoming owners, and now they’re looking at that same process but from the other side with their son Chris, 30, looking to take the helm.

Between taking on debt, new responsibilities and having four young children, they say it was a rocky time when they first acquired the farm.

While Scott’s parents still helped out around the farm—his father milked daily before suddenly falling very ill in 2000—it was a lot to take on at once.

“We’re trying to prevent Chris from making the same mistakes we did because really there was no plan when we took over,” says Faye.

“Chris has been working here since he could drive a tractor, he’s done a lot,” says Faye. “He’s helped us get where we are now, so it’s not fair to turn around and say you’re going to have to pay for it again.”

She means she and Scott don’t want to saddle him with extra debt to pay for their retirement.

They say Chris has always been wanting to have his own farm. They laugh as they recount how he and his brother Garrett used to beg to stay home from school to drive the manure spreader all day.  

“When we were 35, we didn’t care about this stuff, but now that we’re 55, it’s time to think about this stuff,” says Scott.

Nothing is set in stone, or even signed for an official succession plan yet.

“In the next five years, we want a definite plan, maybe not everything transferred, but we want a definite plan on how we want to do it and how it’s going to happen,” says Faye.

“You read all the papers and the magazines and they all make it sound so easy but there’s so many family dynamics to work with,” adds Scott.

One of the biggest hurdles they say is family communication, another is coming to terms with giving up control after being in charge for so many years.

“Lots of times families want to go in the same direction, but they can’t say they want to go in the same direction,” says Scott.

Right now, it’s something they talk about together once or twice a week.

“It’s just coming up with the right plan that everyone’s going to be happy with,” says Scott. “Sometimes I think it’s easier to get into farming than it is to get out of it.”