Because I love you

Two widows discuss how forward planning helped their families carry on 
following the farm accidents that claimed their husbands

Jay Fox and Brian Van Camp both died in farm accidents involving loaders right before Christmas, leaving their families in shock and still trying to run their farms. Jay and Angie were Outstanding Young farmers in Manitoba and leaders in the cattle industry. Brian and Maggie were also leaders in their community and agriculture. Here’s how preplanning helped give Maggie and Angie time and choices and how they’ve kept their farms operating and emerged happy… yes, happy.

Maggie:

When my husband died I was 46-years old, had three teenage children and owned a 100-acre farm with a big old farmhouse. We had 23,000 chickens in the barn and shares in my husband’s family’s farm. I also worked part-time as an associate editor with Country Guide and had been happily married for 21 years.

Suddenly, I was a widow and all these blessings became overwhelming. Do not underestimate grief and do not overestimate you or your family’s ability to function when someone dies or has an accident on your farm.

All I knew was one thing: I was not going to let that moment define me. But, I needed a way out of it.

Preplanning gave me that roadmap.

What I found was that if I knew exactly what I had to do on any given day than I could do it and it gave me strength.

In the morning I’d write down a to-do list for the farm and for my family, and included a two or three what I called DA’s death administration. The funeral home also gave me a list of personal changes, I was executor to my husband’s will and I had to switch over the farm businesses.

There was a mountain of paperwork — like cancelling passports, reading insurance policies, switching the name on the business accounts — but I found I could only do a couple of things a day. It took me almost a year to get through most of that stuff.

The Van Camps (l-r) Nate, Kate, Maggie, Matthew and Pepper the dog.

The Van Camps (l-r) Nate, Kate, Maggie, Matthew and Pepper the dog.
photo: Deb DeVille

Treat yourself

My sister also helped me write a list of treats that I got to do once I had accomplished the hard stuff on the to-do list — things like reading a book, going for a walk, having lunch with a friend, a nice cup of tea. It was a daily reminder to take care of myself in all of the muck.

I had a private third list. At night I’d write done three things that gave me hope. Simple things like my daughter paying her guitar or the sunrise I saw on the way to the barn. Things that made me feel alive and grateful. Sometimes it was hard to come up with hope, but that’s when I needed it the most.

Good planning gives you time and choices. That’s a gift you want to leave your family, especially with a farm business.

Angie Fox and I call it “Getting your crap in order’ because both of us had experienced all the crappy paperwork and fallout from the death of our husbands. However, as we started talking and sharing stories, we became more and more grateful to our husbands for being prepared.

Attached is our “Because I love you” list that I hope you begin filling out right away. Every person and farm is different, but it’s a starting point.

Strangely about five or six years ago I wrote a very similar article for Country Guide called “If you died today.” It was basically a list of things to talk about with your farming spouse in case he/she died. That article was so often requested that for the first time in the long history of the magazine, we republished.

It was also a personal blessing because Brian and I went through that list.

It wasn’t perfect, comprehensive or remotely neat. I scribbled on the back of a document we were reviewing for succession on the way home from the lawyers. It started with a question: “What would you do if your Dad died?” And then we moved on to what would you do if your brother, you, or me died, and ended in teasing, laughter and blinking back few tears.

But I kept that piece of paper and stuck it in the file beside our will.

It was a guideline when I didn’t have any, when I was incredibly vulnerable and broken and when my brain was too muddled with grief to think things through rationally. More importantly it was a conversation I treasure because it proved to me how much Brian cared for us.

Angie:

When you lose someone you love, you get lots of advice. Everyone can relate to death, it happens and we can’t avoid it but sometimes it hits a lot closer to home. There’s a big difference between being the executor of Great Aunt Edna’s estate and planning life after losing your husband.

Farm family businesses are complicated matters because everyone is grieving. For me, it took all the strength I had to get through each day. I had four kids who needed me, and they were grieving too. When Jay passed Devon was 14, Charlee was 5, Porter was 4 and Major was 2 so I had all I could handle with trying to keep my family safe and stable. But I also had a ranch: I had cows to feed, waterers to thaw, the feedlot pens were full of calves, the culls needed to be shipped and I needed to take care of the business.

Life has a way of continuing, even if you don’t want it to. So how do you carry on? What do you do to prepare?

Absolutely everyone needs to have a plan. It’s not only responsible but, a gift to those you leave behind.

The Fox family: (l-r) Charlee, Major, Angie, Porter, Devon (hat).

The Fox family: (l-r) Charlee, Major, Angie, Porter, Devon (hat).
photo: Loree Photography

It happens

I became a widow at 33-years old but when it came to the matters of a funeral I knew what Jay wanted. After attending a town hall meeting he came home and told me they were selling plots at the Willowgrove Cemetary. “Really?” I said. We’re 30-years old and I am having nothing to do with this conversation.” However, later that spring he took me for a drive to the cemetery, so I knew exactly where he wanted to be buried. He also told his parents, which eliminated one family disagreement. We had moved to Manitoba from his childhood home near Lloydminster, Saskatchewan but we knew he wanted to be buried in Eddystone, near our ranch.

I thought these conversations were normal and what married people talk about. Later I learned later that it’s not normal; people don’t talk about dying and funerals.

I knew what songs he loved and who he’d want as pallbearers. I knew there would be no hearse for our family. Instead Justamere Unit 412, a 1989 beat up farm truck, would carry him to his final resting spot. I also knew Devon, our 14-year-old son, would make that drive with his Dad, me and the other kids as his passengers. I knew our family and friends would ride the horses behind us and our dads, brothers and uncles would drive our farm fleet of trucks.

What I didn’t know was I would look behind us on that final drive as a family and tell the kids to remember this forever, because it was so special. I didn’t know I’d feel relieved to give him one last gift. It was so healing to give him a service he’d love, that honoured him.

Until that day, I never knew how loved we were by so many. So go home today and talk to your families and think about what you would like. If it’s too hard to write it down at least talk to someone about it. Don’t think about it as a chore; think about it as a gift.

Maggie: People

Unlike Jay and Angie, my husband and I didn’t talk about the details of his funeral. All I knew was that he wanted a big party so we rented the local community centre and over a 1,000 people came to celebrate his life.

However, we had talked about organ donation when we got the form with our drivers’ licences but you can simply go online at beadonor.ca. It’s a personal choice, but please take the time to sign that card and talk about with a loved one so they know ahead what you want and if you want to cremated.

Brian did ensure that our business was well prepared.

In my experience, basically two things need to be organized for your farm business — people and paper. And of course, people come first.

Like Angie, I’ve never felt so loved as I did after my husband died. The community, my family, our church and especially my friends carried us.

Although we were overwhelmed with offers to help on the farm, not everyone can easily step in to those roles. It would have taken longer to train them than for us to do the work. And I really couldn’t afford for something to go wrong because someone simply didn’t know.

Maggie Van Camp in the family's chicken barn.

Maggie Van Camp in the family’s chicken barn.
photo: Deb DeVille

Trusted help

You see, our farms are specialized and we were missing not only labourer but, a manager and a key decision-maker. Death can put a farm on hold.

So close your eyes. If you died right now who could step in immediately and keep things running?

For many of you, this is a list of temporary workers — for example, relief milkers, or neighbour’s son or a friend who could step in for the short-term.

Early in our farming career, Brian and I consciously decided to make sure that both of us could do everything on the chicken farm so that if one was out due to sickness or injury that we could keep operating, instead of buying disability insurance.

So occasionally we’d spend an afternoon together and he’d show me how to fix a waterline or I showed him how to use the new book-keeping system. In retrospect, I wish I had listened more carefully because I still use wads of duct tape to fix stuff.

Next, is there someone skilled enough who could cover for the longer term?

The day Brian died, I did chores and I did that for a year and a half. Doing daily chores was normal for me and it was important for me to keep things as normal as possible.

Luckily, my husband’s good friend and fellow chicken farmer, Jake, offered to help me. For the next year he fixed things that I didn’t know how to, helped me ship for the first time and was able to step in if I was away. He was on-call and because he was there, I could spend some time visiting with my sister and aunt who both passed within a year of Brian dying.

I paid Jake and we had a written agreement. But both of us knew it wasn’t permanent. Another friend and neighbour helped with the cropping part of our dairy operation and he has mentored my oldest son, Nate.

Outsourcing

Talk about jobs that can be outsourced with your spouse and write down who could fill that role and their telephone number. My neighbour cleaned out my driveway and continues to do that. Who runs a good custom combining business? I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I hired a house cleaner. Who would be a good book keeper?

We didn’t have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) but we do now.

It started with Jake writing procedures for shipping — something I had not done alone before.

Then I realized my kids — who had done chores all their lives — really didn’t understand what they were doing. Then I created SOPs for daily chores and placement of birds.

Now we use our SOPs for OFFSAP and animal care audits as proof of diligence. This spring I used them to hire and train someone to manage the barn for me so I could go back to work at the magazine.

At least write down things like where the keys are kept, if they are not in the ignition. Also, write down the passwords for the day-to-day stuff, like scales, debit cards or your cellphone. To this day I continue to use the contacts from my husband’s cellphone all the time. I’ve got two pages of passwords for the computer.

The spring after Brian died, my son Nate stepped up to do the corn planting. The most stressful part about it was that no one on our farm knew the password to the GPS.

Passwords

I’ve learned to accept help and lean on friends. People needed to help almost as much as I needed the help. Food poured in and that continued for four months. I’ve a wonderful group of friends and they picked me up, cried with me, walked with me through this valley death. I made them promise to not let me drink alcohol for five months. It would have been so easy to go there but whatever you do, don’t use alcohol or illegal drugs to deal with sadness. It only makes it worse.

Also, I went to a counsellor and still do. She has helped me heal, to figure out who I am alone and is my trusted wise personal advisor, my wise woman.

Who could your spouse talk to about the farm and money? Someone who could give them good advice and won’t gossip or take advantage. Someone trustworthy and would have their best interests at heart, who knows your farm and loves your family.

I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life as I did after I lost my husband. I needed someone to trust who I could talk to about the farm business and finances someone who had my back.

In some cases, family might be too close — they’ll be grieving and you just don’t know how they’ll react to death. Death can really throw people into spirals and self-preservation suddenly takes over from caring.

Other widows I’ve met say that after they lost their spouses, it was difficult to get a grasp on money values, because money means nothing. Also, they become very impulsive. I found having my assets in the farm grounded me.

In addition, both you and your wife or business partner should have a list of names and numbers for your professionals. Better still, introduce them. Who is the farm’s accountant, lawyer, loaning institution and manager. Who is your financial advisor/broker and write down RRSP’s, TFSA and other investments. Who are your insurance agents and policies.

Support network

I have a little team of what I call “My Power Women” — my accountant, Lisa and my lawyer, Karrisa and our bank loan manager, Michelle. When I called our bank, Michelle said “we’ll talk” when we normally review your account, in six months. It was a vote of confidence that I needed.

It made it easier that Brian and I were both on as owners of the business, the land and quota and we had a solid business plan that we had shared with our bank. The bank accounts and mortgages were under Brian and/or Maggie Van Camp. It gives you time to write and receive cheques under the deceased person’s name.

Farm operations you will also need to know some key people and they’re different for every farm. This is not only to operate the farm but to make any changes and sort out valuations and administration.

The reality is, something is going to break. It always does and it’s usually at night, on the weekend and it’s cold, so write down a list of fix-it folks and their numbers. Mechanic, electrician, plumber, furnace, septic system, barn equipment suppliers, welder, snow removal. And don’t forget the toys. Who can winterize the snowmobiles, the camper, the pool?

Angie: Paper

The single hardest part about doing our will was deciding who would become the guardians of our children. Devon was a lot older than the other three and had said he’d like the will to be written he wanted to be their legal guardian when he turned 18, if something happened to us. Jay and I tossed this around and we disagreed over the guardians, so in the end we decided on some family friends with the clause that Devon would gain guardianship when he came of age.

Many people get to this roadblock and it doesn’t go any further. If you do not have a will with someone appointed, the courts will appoint someone guardianship of your children.

When my Grandma passed away recently she had a little note with her will and it said: “Above all else please don’t fight when I am gone!” Every parent hopes their kids will continue as a family without them. By securing proper documentation and distribution, this alleviates the family fights.

In family farm situations, you need to document how you wish to share with the children who are not involved with the farm. Do you have insurance to secure that each child is treated fairly?

It’s a time in your life when everyone has to work out the direction of our relationships. In my situation, I knew Jay’s family would support me, but in what capacity? In later conversations with my mother- in- love I realized they struggled to know when to help. When to call? When to leave me alone?

We established the three-a-day system: they call me morning, noon and night. That might seem a little over the top to some, but I am grateful. In calving season I know that if something went wrong, they would come looking for me and that my kids wouldn’t be alone. It’s what works for us.

Unfinished business

Jay and I were pretty well-prepared in some aspects. But we also had a lot of unfinished business. When we took over the ranch from his parents, we purchased all assets of the business but, some assets had remained in his Dad’s name to avoid paying the tax on them.

However, in a time of vulnerability these little things seem so big. I felt a huge sense of urgency to get this taken care of and thank goodness I have the greatest “mother and father in-love” ever because they understood why I needed to do this. Suddenly, I felt like no one’s life was safe and they could be gone tomorrow as well.

In a way I trusted no one, myself included, and dealing with unresolved business matters helped me to feel that my life was in control. During this time I ran the risk of offending others. However, I could not see beyond my need for stability.

Another issue that reared its ugly head quickly was the setup of our bank accounts. Luckily, a few weeks before the accident we had shipped calves and for the most part all the bills had been paid. This also meant the income had been deposited into the ranch account. Our business account had been set up so each of us were required to sign. This probably isn’t the way that most people would have it in a partnership. However, it’s what worked for us…until the day he passed.

On that day, the structure of the business changed from a partnership to a sole proprietorship and that seized all further bank transactions until we got things straightened around. Thankfully our banker was understanding and let me take what I needed to survive for a few months.

Cost of dying

Dying costs a lot and there are a lot of immediate expenses.

Although you might feel secure in having a life insurance policy to cover everything, that money doesn’t always arrive quickly. With an accident, insurers require proper documentation and doctors’ notes prior to dispersal and it takes time. Plus a grieving person can only handle doing so much at one time. I cried at the bank, accountant, lawyer, even at the hairdressers. Boy did she get it!

I also ran into another issue at the bank when it was explained to me that we would need to probate the will. I didn’t understand this because we had a will, why would we need to probate? The banker explained to me it was in the event that Jay had a girlfriend who felt entitled to part. Definitely, not the greatest thing to tell a grieving widow.

This didn’t sit right with me and I called my sister-in-love, who is a lawyer. It became her mandate to straighten this out and she worked with my lawyer and eventually we signed papers with the bank — eliminating probate.

I learnt a couple things in this process: Don’t mess with a grieving lawyer and if income comes in during this time, do not deposit it into your farm account. Your lawyer can take it in trust so you can access it.

My little old bank account at the Edam Credit Union from when I was a teenager was very valuable, as it allowed me to access money when I needed it. In my opinion, everyone should have a personal bank account and a personal credit card.

I also firmly believe that if you have children, are part of a family operation or if you have debt (basically if you are still breathing and doing business) you should have a life insurance policy to cover you if something happens.

The children

Family farm businesses are complicated and when you have minor children you need money to take care of them.

Should our situation have been different and it was me who went instead of Jay, he would have had different worries but he still would have needed money. There would have been expenses related to child care, most definitely he would have need a house keeper and he probably would have needed to hire out some of the book work, and these would all have been unbudgeted expenses. As a woman sometimes I didn’t value my worth on the ranch nearly enough and consider the important role I played in the day-to-day operations.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to ensure you have all your affairs in order in order to protect yourself. Make sure you know the terms of your loans, the beneficiaries of your estate and insurance policies, and all parties involved in your operation have a working relationship with your operation’s trusted professionals.

It was important I had a working relationship with the bankers, lawyers, accountant and such but it was also important we had a family doctor and I knew our investment broker and had a relationship with the people who we did our marketing through.

When a family is grieving it is not a good time to find out that there is some unfinished business. During the grieving process no one thinks rationally and it’s human nature to cling to what you have left.

Husbands and wives be sure that you have given the gift of choice to one another. Have you also given your kids the same gift? If you are in business with your kids, make sure you have taken care of them, and adult children are often overlooked. Are they set up to be able to manage the operation on their own? Have you given them a choice? Do they really want to farm? Do they feel obligated to the family business?

Maggie: Paper

The day after Brian died, I sat down at the computer to write his obituary and our newly revised will arrived by email. Although it was too late to use that one, our old one worked fine because it was only one of us.

However, I often think how much more difficult this would have been if my husband had died earlier in our farming career. For the first five years that we farmed we our will was from when I was 28, had one child and we lived in Alberta.

Brian and I started farming in 2000 when we were well into our 30’s. We bought a five-acre farm with a chicken barn and quota near where his family who ran a 120-cow dairy operation where he worked as an employee. That year we quit our executive jobs in Winnipeg, packed up our two small boys, a dog, all our belongings and headed back to Ontario.

Insurance

Our farm was a sole proprietorship and we had life insurance on both of us at that time. It seems the bank requires it when you have copious amounts of debt. During that time, almost everything the farm made went to pay down the mortgage.

In 2005, we bought a 100-acre farm near the family dairy farm, moved houses and over the next year built a new broiler barn. After the barn was complete, we invited the whole community in for a barn dance. At least 400 people came and went that evening, we danced, ate, drank and visited: Brian was so proud and happy. Community, family, farming and dancing — everything he loved.

The next year I went back to work, on staff for Country Guide. Brian continued to build up the cropping portion of the family dairy farm and become an integral part of the management and decision-making there. In the last few years of his life they cropped about 1,200 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, adzuki beans and hay.

A few years prior to his death, Brian and I officially became part of the family dairy and cropping corporation, after nearly a decade of talking about succession. Once the decision was made, succession went smoothly.

Together with his brother, Lawrence and sister-in-law Jan, we worked out a shareholders’ agreement (SHA). This process took a lot of communication, organization and patience and we talked about how we’d handle the four D’s —disability, divorce, disagreement and death. Our lawyer wrote the SHA addressing all these and the buy-sell portion was funded by a life insurance policy covering each of the two brothers. We did this mostly to enable us to plan more easily for succession to the next generation.

Write it down

Whatever your business structure, whether it’s a corporation, a partnership or a joint venture have a written agreement that includes what will happen if one of the four D’s happens.

Thank God we had a written pathway to follow after Brian’s death as we’d probably still be meeting at the lawyers and those meetings were extremely difficult for me. And that was with people who cared for us and had signed off on the SHA. We also shared the same lawyer and that made it easier and kept it transparent. I knew and trusted her and had a copy of the SHA that I could read through.

Is there anything we should have done better? Yes, of course.

We should have written in a way to deal with the insurance interest in case the process didn’t follow established timelines. We were all so shell-shocked and full of pain that it was hard to sort through the business part of the paperwork and it took longer. Even in that state, within nine months we were able to get through this process. I cannot imagine how long and miserable this would have been without a funded, well-written buy-sell agreement.

Another thing we should have done was to write down all our insurance policies and the agent and telephone number who sold it to us. When I was going through the Visa statements a few months after Brian died, I called the insurance company to figure out what the prearranged payment was for. After a few calls back and forth, they offered to reimburse me the premiums I had paid since his death. During the succession planning, we had bought a disability insurance policy for Brian that I had forgotten about.

Four months later, I ran into the selling agent at a farm show and he didn’t know what had happened to Brian but said that he usually put an accidental death rider on those policies. He followed through with the company and it was worth over $100,000, which is helping to pay for my children’s college education.

Keep lists

The moral of the story is that you should have a list of insurance policies and the name and contact information for the person who sold it to you.

They will help you.

All along we had private insurance policies to cover our debt; we did not buy mortgage insurance that the banks were selling. Private insurance was a bit cheaper, it didn’t decrease with our debt and the insurance payout came directly to me instead of the bank. And it came quickly, within a week of me dropping off a death certificate and filling out the forms, a cheque arrived from the insurance agency. This gave me security and allowed me to choose where I wanted to put the money, instead of it paying off the bank first.

For example, I used some of it to pay off a smaller personal loan we had with a relative. In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t had that loan as we had no agreement on how to pay it back and it was very awkward.

In a recent study, it was proven that all humans have a 100 per cent chance of dying, even the strongest, most successful, optimistic enthusiastic and even the most procrastinating of us die. It’s inevitable.

It’s difficult enough for the folks left behind. Don’t make it any harder. Do not let your death define your family’s or farm’s future. Take time to go through our “Because I love you list” and get your farm’s business organized.

Angie: Finding happiness

Maggie and I were both very fortunate Jay and Brian had done this. I don’t know where our lives will lead us but right now we are content. After losing Jay I had some really hard decisions to make: Would we stay here? I ‘m originally from Saskatchewan and all my family are still there so it did pose the question: Would be move back? Should we move closer? Are we going to keep the ranch?” I can’t imagine what it would be like to not be able to make these decisions for ourselves. Many woman wouldn’t have stayed and I don’t judge them one bit for that, but the ranch is our home and where our hearts belonged. Our life was in Manitoba, our hopes and dreams are yet to be accomplished and our greatest support system is here.

Our ranch has a significant amount of Crown lands and in our contract we must have cows. If we were staying, we had to continue with business as usual or we would lose our crown land leases and that would significantly reduce the value of the ranch for the future. So we were all in or all out. And we were all in.

The kids wanted to stay and so did I. We love our life on the ranch and we see our future here. Is it hard? Absolutely but, this life has provided us joy and healing.

Looking for hope

Jay died on the 23rd of December and I started lambing on January 1. That new life made me get up in the morning, and gave me something to do when I was awake at night. Each little lamb was a sign of new life and new hope. But with livestock you have dead stock and every death torpedoed me back but it let me get those tears out.

We must grieve and we either do it now or we do it later but either way we grieve for it. The deaths on my ranch helped me to vent and deal with my loss. That was a gift that I needed because I internalize a lot.

In all honesty I could not have imagined what it would have been like to have packed up and moved. To me it felt that all that was and is Jay is right here on our ranch. Our business is our life and our home, as well as our business.

Being on the ranch gave me time alone with my thoughts. Chore time was my time and I have probably cried more tears while feeding cows than while doing any other job.

At first the tears came from all the unfinished dreams and the realizing for our hopes to become reality it was going to fall to me. Sometimes the tears came from struggles of not knowing where to turn next and to whom I could trust to turn to for advice. As time went by they were tears of joy for the life that we shared accomplishments.

In my journal on Sunday November 17, 2013— I continue to accomplish my goals and carry on because I know that Jay believes in me. I will not let death steal my joy from me. I will live a life that is accomplished and I will not give up on my passion for agriculture. I love this life!

Being grateful

At this stage in my life I have worked super hard to be grateful and happy. I’ve had hardship but I will not let that hardship be the very thing that defines me. I have had a whole lot of joy in my life as well. I have four beautiful children, I have a husband who blessed me with enough love to last a lifetime and I have the truest of friends and family.

That’s a lot to be grateful for.

Both Maggie and I were blessed with husbands that have a larger than life personality. They were funny, and loving and supportive and I know without a moment’s hesitation they continue to be proud of the woman that they left behind: proud of the choices we’ve made, and there isn’t a day that passes they aren’t cheering us on.

Their passing is a harsh reminder to go out there and do good things in the world. Let other people help you and help others.

Maggie and I want to encourage you to be brave. Talk about your wishes, complete your “Because I love you list”, get your business in order. And most importantly, never give up on happiness.

Suggested headings for your own “Because I Love You” lists

Use this as a guide to develop your own.

  • The help: Short-term help, longer-term help;
  • Standard operating procedures;
  • Passwords, location of keys to equipment;
  • Lists and location of important documents: RRSPs, TSFAs, and other investments; insurance policies, bank accounts, business agreements, lease agreements, mortgages, vehicle ownership;
  • Names of personal trusted advisor and mentor;
  • Professional contacts: accountant, lawyer, banker, doctor, dentist, childcare provider, financial advisor; processors, elevator manager, commodity broker, input suppliers, veterinarian, equipment dealers and repair, vendors;
  • Contacts for the Fix-It folks: mechanic, electrician, plumber, furnace, septic, welder, security systems;
  • Legal: power of attorney, executor, guardian, organ donation, cremation, funeral arrangements.

About the author

Angie Fox's recent articles

explore

Stories from our other publications

Comments