Wider Horizons

Barrie Broughton has seen it happen more than once. An Alberta farmer, about to harvest his retirement years, tiffin lessondecides to leave his farm to a child. After all, what could be more natural: the son or daughter inherits a business the father has grown diligently all his life, and keeps the family line intact.

It’s a warm fuzzy with Alberta’s agricultural heritage written across it. But it doesn’t always lead to warm, fuzzy endings.

Those so designated may not want the farm, or may feel obligated to take it over, forfeiting other careers. Or, the farm may be a marginal venture, saddling the next generation with an unwanted financial burden.

When farm families begin to think about succession planning, and find themselves in Broughton’s law office at North and Company in Lethbridge, he’ll tell them all the same thing: communication is key.

“Such a process is nothing new,” says Broughton, a lawyer specializing in business and succession planning. “But it is new to each family. It’s an ongoing process that many don’t realize until they are in the middle of it. A lot of the work has been done subconsciously, but it has to be done consciously.”

That’s what Broughton, a farm boy once himself who practises in Lethbridge, basically told attendees to the Tiffin Conference at Lethbridge College last spring. And the message likely resonated, considering he was speaking to a generation holding the reins and a crop of college and university students who are on the cusp of deciding whether farming will be their way of life.

“Whenever you have a business and decide to bring in the family, you are affecting succession planning,” says Broughton. “Even when you hire a child to help out on the farm. . . once they’re involved in the business, you need to start discussing where it’s leading. A young person is starting to make career decisions at 18.”

Communication, then, becomes vital, not at retirement, but years ahead.

“Many family members simply make assumptions, which are not discussed and which can be correct or not correct. A father may want the farm to continue and may have expectations and assumptions his children want the same thing.

“A son [or daughter] might be 55 and is suddenly handed the farm; it might be too good a deal to turn down, but it might not be what he wants now. That can lead to feelings of failure if he is unable to grow the business, leading to stress and disappointment.

“I’ve seen parents hang on to farms because they thought their kids wanted it, and I’ve seen kids take over the farm because they thought the parents wanted them to. Of course, there are many enjoyable stories with positive outcomes. They must start from the right basis with the right communication.”

Broughton notes a family farm, unlike, say, a car dealership or contracting business, is a lifestyle; that makes it unique. Whoever is assuming control must enjoy that lifestyle to prosper in the business. They can’t confuse a ‘rural lifestyle’ with ‘agribusiness,’ which needs to grow and prosper and feed a family, perhaps involving three generations.

“Older generation farmers have a difficulty seeing their business as something separate from themselves.”

Broughton trained as a tax lawyer, has an economics background, and is registered with the British-based Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. All of that sounds rather academic, but Broughton notes his practice revolves around people, not books and law.

He lauds Lethbridge College’s endeavours with the Tiffin Conference and notes the students in the Agricultural Technology program who attended were among the most motivated and intelligent he’s come across. He also favours post-secondary education for anyone considering agribusiness.

“The college experience gives them a chance to meet their peer group and to use it as a resource,” Broughton says. “My dad was a 1950 agriculture graduate of the University of Alberta, and that crew permeated the Alberta agricultural scene for years. Obviously, their professors made a lasting impression.

“To have a child leave the farm for a period for work or for education is an excellent idea. An education teaches them to be receptive to ideas, a valuable trait for anyone going into business.

“Agriculture is a multi-million dollar industry. It needs people with the right training and aptitude to succeed. It has always been an evolution; there has never been a freeze frame where one could say ‘there, that’s perfect.’”

Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
Original Publication Date: