I am less than a week into the official 'research' part of my travels and tonight I spent the evening wandering the gorgeous streets of York alone. Is there anything more lonely than asking for a table for one at a restaurant? Or having to use the self timer on your camera to take a picture of yourself that is not an arms length selfie?
Thankfully, the Nuffield network (or should I say family) comes through! I've had the opportunity to stay with two past scholars: Robert Neill in Scotland and Nick Chippindale in England, so far. It is a breath of fresh air to be welcomed into a home environment which is full of good fun and great food.
There is so much to be learned from these scholars, not only about their agriculture businesses, but about their Nuffield experiences as well. And their families have a lot to offer too! As Lorna Chippindale said to me last night - staying with a family returns a sense of normalcy to a time when things are so out of the ordinary.
I feel blessed to be welcomed into the beautiful homes of these beautiful people. I'm looking forward to more visits with the Nuffield network in the coming weeks, and to welcoming fellow scholars into my humble abode when I return from my travels.
The average age of farmers in the developed world is 55 to 60 years old. In many agricultural regions there is concern over the future of family farms. In the United States, one study has predicted that there will be almost no farmers under the age of 35 by the year 2050. As land value continues to rise, there have been impacts on the accessibility for young farmers to enter into the sector. There are a lot of negative stories and concern in this area, but there is also a lot of hope.
However, hope is not a strategy (as both Michael Ehmann and Jean Lonie told us this week at the Nuffield CSC). If we are going to address the issue of succession we need to take concrete action. So what can we do? How can we ensure the viability of our future farms? On March 7 I teamed up with eight other Ag leaders, and fellow Nuffield Scholars, to tackle this question. Here is the strategy we came up with:
Partnership and business options:
There is a common perception that the only way to pass on a farm is as a 'whole' entity, or to divide among siblings/partners after a death or retirement. Often the feeling is that assets should be split evenly between siblings, even if they are not actively engaged in the farm. This can lead to issues with a lack of liquid assets, or emotional distress among the family.
Our group felt that in order to secure the future of our farms we need to look at farms as businesses and explore other options for ownership. Are there ways to allow younger generations or outside partners to buy into the farm in a shareholder agreement, leading to a multi-generational business ownership situation? Or perhaps there needs to be new models of land ownership and farm management, such as those being explored by Colin Hudon (a fellow 2015 Nuffield Canada scholar - @samc_colin). We suggest that farmers look into these options and perhaps even consider business models which are used in other industries. But the bottom line is that farms need to be treated as businesses and their structures formalized in the way most suitable to the individual situation. So how do we do that?
Communication and action:
We believe that the second step is to communicate these options to the farmer and take the time to put things down on paper. There are several professional consultants and organizations which specialize in business or succession planning. Farm families need to have these conversations and put these structures in place. It is OK to ask for help from others and often an outside perspective can be very valuable in determining steps forward for a business and facilitating the opinions of multiple family members.
A final point in securing the future of our farms is to ensure that they are profitable. Putting a formal business structure in place will often be a primary step to do this. When operations and management are viewed with a business lens it is harder to operate at a loss, or make decisions based solely on emotion. Farmers need to commit to investing in their farms as businesses.
The agri-food industry as a whole also needs to be seen as profitable. Without that it will be very difficult to encourage the next generation to want to join the sector (the topic which I will be working on during my Nuffield studies.
Succession is not an easy topic. The connections farmers have to their land and/or livestock is often very deep. Thus it can be hard to think about and have the conversations on what will happen in the future. But if we take the time now to engage in these conversations and build our business strategy we will go a long way towards ensuring a positive future for the agri-food sector.
As we end the fourth full day of the Nuffield Contemporary Conference I can't help but think about communication and how we get our message across.
We had four unique presentations about conservation agriculture, biotechnology, genomics and research. All speakers were incredibly knowledgeable about their topics. Yet some got their message across better than others.
The topic of "telling our story" has come up many times. So here are a few thoughts on how to effectively communicate with others.
1. Listen first
Some people are better than others at actually hearing what is being said. The first rule of having a conversation is making sure you pay attention to your audience/counterpart. If someone asks you a question make sure you actually address it before you start off on another track. It can be incredibly frustrating to have a dialogue when you don't feel heard.
2. Share your values
When communicating with others make sure they know where you stand on a values standpoint. The Centre for Food Integrity has a consumer trust model which suggests first telling your consumer what values you share with them (e.g. Food safety) before providing them with scientific facts (see more at www.food integrity.org). Jean Lonie shared the key quote at the end of the day that "people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This can be applied in a variety of settings - not just the ag industry talking to consumers.
3. Keep an open mind
I heard so many people at the CSC today (and the past 3 days) say "that's a good point" or "I hadn't thought of that". The ability to learn is an amazing capacity that we have as humans. We need to make sure that we don't close ourself to new knowledge or new opinions. If we do that then the conversation shuts down completely. A little healthy debate never hurt anyone, and having your stance challenged is often an incredibly useful activity.
Are there other key pieces you can think of? How do you have effective conversations and get your story across?
I was raised as the seventh generation on a mixed livestock farm near Guelph, Ontario. Currently I am living in the beautiful Okanagan region of BC, where my husband works for Blue Mountain Winery. I maintain my close ties to Ontario agriculture through my job with AgScape (Ontario Agri-Food Education Inc.) and hope to bring a national, and global perspective to agricultural issues.