Jenn Doelman is reminding others that it’s okay to have an unsuccessful transition
By Diego Flammini
With the ag community recognizing Jan. 10 as Farm Transition Appreciation Day, one Ontario producer is reminding her fellow farmers that not all succession plans end successfully, and that’s okay.
“It’s okay to walk away, and you will be okay,” she told Farms.com. “I think there’s a pressure on family farms to transition, and if you don’t it’s like you’ve left a past generation down.”
Doelman and her husband, Michael, have a diversified operation in Douglas, Ont. She's also the Zone 8 director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
But they did not take over the farm from family members.
After graduating from the University of Guelph in 2003, the pair decided to move to the Ottawa area to farm and planned to take over the farm from Doelman’s parents.
When Doelman’s father started to talk about retirement, the early stages of succession planning went smoothly.
But when Jennifer and Michael started a family and their priorities changed, so did the discussions around the farm’s transition.
“All the talk about handing the reigns over kept getting further and further in the distance,” she said.
When the two generations started to have challenges about transition planning, Doelman sought the help of succession planners and coaches to help the process along.
But her father wasn’t receptive to those kinds of resources.
“One of the challenges is there’s really no recipe to follow when it comes to farm transitions,” she said. “One succession planner told me that whoever has the gold makes the rule. And if the (older generation) isn’t ready for transition, there’s nothing a planner can do to force that. And essentially if my dad didn’t get the answer he wanted to hear, he stopped engaging.
“All the talk about handing the reigns over kept getting further and further in the distance. "You understand as the next generation that you need earn the right to be a successor – you need to work in the trenches, make sacrifices, invest sweat equity. You can do it for a while, but when you have young kids, massive debt and very little control of your future, it takes its toll on your health. After 12 years of slogging it out, we had made no progress on the succession plan. During the peak of the first pandemic lockdown my husband developed a dangerous heart condition and we knew we needed to change our lifestyle, fast.”
It was then that Jenn and Michael made the decision to walk away and start their own farm.
And the partnership they did have with Jenn’s parents ended with litigation.
The struggles between the two generations took a toll on Jenn’s mental health.
“My own mental health suffered because of all the family struggles and the tears that were shed,” Jenn said. “When you talk about succession planning, you’re essentially talking about mortality. I hate the word ‘legacy’ now because legacy is basically what weaponized the farm.”
After experiencing the farm transition process the way she did, Doelman has tips for producers starting the succession planning journey.
Helping farmers prepare for life after farming is important, she said.
“We don’t really do a lot of prep work to help farmers understand what their identity is after the farm,” she said. “I think that’s something that needs attention because we’re more than just farmers.”
Open lines of communication are also key.
Make sure everyone is on the same page, Doelman said.
“Have clear boundaries, deadlines and accountability,” she said. “Those were the toughest for us. What worked well for my parents and their generation needed to transition to the next generation, but we weren’t able to see that happen.”
Despite the challenges with transition planning, Doelman’s family has a good relationship with her parents.
They do custom work for Jenn’s parents and had Christmas dinner together over the holidays.
Farming separately but with the same kinds of goals in mind works for this family, Doelman said.
"Our multigenerational partnership was cumbersome – like two race cars welded together, trying to get around the track without pulling apart," she said. "It wasn’t overly efficient – one couple looking to expand, the other to slow down – it caused a lot of conflict. In separating, we are better able to manage our own workload and finances, but we still provide services to each other’s business to take advantage of economies of scale."
But if the failed farm business transition means a healthier family relationship, it was worth the struggle, Doelman said.
“Having a happy and healthy relationship with my nieces means much more than dollars in a bank account,” she said. “My generation has decided that family is more important than a farm transition and being the umpteenth generation on a farm.”
Statistics Canada recently started to document the number of Canadian farms with succession plans.
The 2021 Census of Agriculture found that 12 per cent of farms identified as having a succession plan. In 2016, only 8.4 per cent of farms had one.
In Ontario, 5,987 farms reported having a written succession plan. 10,829 farms had a verbal succession plan and 31,530 farms reported having no succession plan.