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‘Old farmers’ share their wisdom

A panel of experienced farmers tell Manitoba Young Farmers about what they did right and wrong

The panel included: Harold Froese, director with the Manitoba Egg Farmers and a grain, poultry and egg farmer from Oak Bluff; Reg Dyck, an instructor with the University of Manitoba ag diploma program, and former grain and oilseed farmer near Starbuck; Ed Remple, a retired grain farmer from Starbuck; and Barry Routledge, who runs a mixed farm near Lenore and is going through the succession process with his three sons.

Barry Routledge (left to right), Harold Froese, Reg Dyck and Ed Remple speak at the Manitoba Young Farmers Conference, March 5.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What is something you would recommend to young farmers that added to your farming success?

Ed: For any of you who don’t have a tattoo yet and you would like a tattoo, tattoo this to your arm: ‘I need mentors.’ It will keep you in good stead. It will make sure you don’t forget. Because mentors will make you money. A lot of it, and keep you in business. Just make sure that your mentors aren’t farming next door to you because those aren’t mentors. They are called the competition.

Reg: We need to think a little bit outside the box. So, in terms of success, one thing I always told my children was, ‘Don’t say that you can’t do it. Find a way that you will do it.’

Harold Froese.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Harold: One thing that I would recommend — Barry and I were talking in the hall earlier a bit facetiously but it’s serious — is marry someone smarter than yourself. And I can say hands down that I did that.

We sometimes don’t take enough time to recognize the human side of what we do. I remember so clearly — I worked with FCC for, I think it was nine years before I went farming and then was a lender later as well. But the year after we got married I did the thing that a lot of farm people do. You bought a chunk of land and borrowed the money, and then the next thing — and of course my wife signed on 50-50 same as I did — and again she was smarter than me. She knew the next thing that was going to come into my head — how quickly can I go back to the farm.

And we had one of those conversations. It was a very one-sided one where I was very quiet, and she says, ‘you’re not going back to the farm as a hired man.’ So she recognized the dynamic. She knew my last name and my ethnic background. And she recognized that me and my dad were very similar. And she knew if I went back too early, who would be caught in the middle.

I think that was one of the things that helped me in my farming career was the partner I was fortunate enough to have.

Barry Routledge.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Barry: I was very fortunate to run across a lady who came from the city who loved the rural side of things and wanted to raise a family in a rural area. That’s been integral to the success of our farm. She’s extremely smart and can debate better than me. So when I had crazy ideas, it wasn’t that we had arguments. We had damn good debates.

She’s a whiz at the finances side of things. She worked for farm debt review for a number of years and the FCC options programs, so she knows how to analyze things for that, and that’s an asset to have on the farm.

Be very careful on mentorship. Pick out someone who disagrees with you. That’s when you learn. Don’t get somebody that’s a ‘yes man,’ that keeps on, I’ll say, kissing your ass because that doesn’t get you anywhere.

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We’re in an area right now where data, information and everything is coming at you. When I started out that information wasn’t there. Decisions were a heck of a lot easier to make. Now you have data coming at you. We all have these wonderful little cellphones. You can see what the market’s doing, you can see what interest rates are doing, you can see what Trump is doing.

It’s not just in agriculture, but a lot of industries now are coming to the point where they can’t make decisions. And the most important thing you have to do is make the decisions. Don’t worry if it’s right or wrong. Not making the decision is always wrong. Make decisions. Live by them.

Question: What strategies did you use to find long-term success in the agriculture industry, and which would be beneficial for young farmers today?

Reg Dyck.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Reg: In 1988 we had a very severe drought. We had pre-sold a number of commodities, and really that was the start of something that really started a good trend for us. I got a brokerage account, and I started trading some commodities. Along with that I think really took some courses and did some learning. I really delved into it.

We had a very, very poor crop, and we had pre-sold commodities. We had to do something, and so we started buying futures positions. In the end, it worked out quite well and we kind of learned by the seat of our pants, but carried that forward for the rest of our farming career and that was really, really useful and that was part of our success.

Ed Remple.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Ed: Here’s a long-term strategy. So, I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I wasn’t smart enough anyway. So what I did was, I looked at the best farmers in the area. The top people. And, I copied them. Why would you reinvent the wheel? Just copy their success as close as you can, add in your own little flavouring and seasoning and see where you come up. But this was not a bad strategy.

Barry: The drought years affected Manitoba quite hard. Those shocks stay with you for the rest of your life. I’m having trouble now keeping my mouth shut as the three boys are coming in, because I remember that and they haven’t experienced it. I’m holding things back when they should be going ahead. That’s a fine balance to do out there.

You have to have a plan, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and walk away. There may be times where you have to make a little deviation that makes a lot of sense on the short term.

Harold: (Speaking on getting into policy-making.) For me, what I needed to do was to learn what was happening outside the farm in order to help me in my decisions. We never had a young farmers’ organization. We started farming. We did whatever. We were on our own.

There was a, more than one, but a dairy fire in the Steinbach area last fall, I think it was. And the poor family, they had the emotional loss of the animals, because we get attached to our animals. The question of will the insurance company come through to rebuild the barn, which would be who knows how many million dollars.

Concerned citizens out of the city of Winnipeg, who have no connection to the farm, had a wake for the animals on the road outside the farm. The dairy farmers were excellent. They connected with those people and they said, ‘we share your grief for the animals.’ So they put aside their own grief, in a sense, to help other people process that. That type of thing has really influenced me and the decision-making.

What’s the point of that? To begin to understand how other people who — some of whom dramatically oppose everything that we’re doing whether you’re in livestock or not — to understand how they think.

Question: What are the tax issues farmers face as they begin to look at retirement, selling assets (including land) or renting out land?

Barry: I always looked at what was negative and if I can get that negative to a zero, it wasn’t taking away from a positive. There is always negative things on the farm.

Just a simple thing in the last years, when we’ve had a few wet years on our side of the province. Lo and behold, salinity is coming back again. I lived through that in my youth. Very simple, we just go to our maps. I started drawing circles — we’re not going to be putting any inputs into these because there is no return coming back. It’s very simple to do with the technologies out there, so look at those negative things because it’s costing you money.

You’re young, you get married and you’ve got a responsibility to put a (roof) over you two and to pay taxes for the roads and the hospitals. If you’re fortunate, you have a family. Now you have a responsibility to put clothes on their back, and pay your taxes for the education.

A lot of times in life we forget about those responsibilities and get caught up in what our objectives are. And as I’m coming close to the end of my farming, I think a lot of things came into the succession plan. Trying to figure out how to bring an end to the farm is pretty easy because the farm is now diversified, and as far as the day-to-day activities go, (his sons are) all very flexible and they’ve worked all their life on the farm. They know what to do.

What do I want in retirement? Even in the hard times, we always set some money aside, we always paid ourselves, we always saved. So we’re on the sunset now, and the financial adviser is sitting there, I said let’s answer the question for me. If I won the $10-million lottery, what would change in my life?

(He said) ‘You’d probably buy a house to retire in, probably a used pickup truck, and the rest you’re going to put in the bank.’

So that made it easy to decide how we sell the corporation and how we sell the land. It’s not what it’s worth. It’s what I need. And that’s probably the best transfer going to the children.

Harold: I can’t emphasize enough, in terms of tax strategies, to have a plan. The numbers — really have to understand the business.

I don’t have a problem with the tax system as it applies to farmers. If we have a plan, the tax laws in Canada are very manageable for us as farmers — if we have a plan. That includes all the numbers but also the emotional thing.

It takes time. You don’t decide to quit farming or exit something today and then it’s done. It’s a decade or more, and if you have a plan it works out reasonably well.

Reg: In order to pay taxes you have to be profitable. One thing I always said was important was to know your cost of production. It’s just really critical.

Ed: I was 56 years old, and I said to my wife, “let’s do some tax planning.” It took us three years. Finished when I was 59, all ready to go. And guess what happened when I was 59? I came down with acute anxiety. And that’s why I’m not farming anymore.

I picked up the phone, rented the farm out, didn’t have to worry, slept like a baby. Because all that tax planning was all completely completed. So just make sure that you are organized. You just never know.

Question: How can young farmers work effectively with retiring farmers to benefit both groups?

Barry: Take a leadership role out there. It’s worth it. IT is where the future’s going to go. Don’t rely on old farts like us to do any more policy ‘cause it’s the policy you guys need, not the policies we need.

I’ll give you a little secret. When you start arguing with other people across the country, especially the bureaucrats and the politicians, understand their side of the arguments better than they know it. That’s how you win debates at the end of the day and that’s how you get your policy pushed forward. You’re not smart, you’re just smarter than the opposition.

Harold: There’s the whole financial, economic — having a plan etc. The other big piece is the communication and the relationship. It’s often the small things that will lead to something. Some of the best relationships I had in terms of sales, etc., were — some with very significant dollars — where there was a trust, win-win relationship on both sides, so trying to benefit us as sellers and also the buyers.

There are things that we can do, and a lot of it is understanding the other person and where they’re coming from because I’ve seen sales blow up — million-plus-dollar sales — over a few bins or a driveway or something because what that did, it triggered a dignity question for the person selling because they’re leaving a three-generation farm.

Blow the snow for the neighbour in the wintertime. Bring him or her a gift at Christmastime. All those things, they’re all excellent.

Reg: It’s important to bring them (parents) along on their plans, because you’re going to have plans different than theirs. You’re going to want to maybe expand the farm, try new enterprises. Bring your parents with you. Make sure they’re part of the vision. And then don’t shove them out too fast because they can be of use. Ed mentioned mentoring before, that’s really valuable. Sometimes it may just be as simple as them running the combine or the grain cart or whatever, but take them along with your vision and then be prepared to grow it. Take the older people with you.

Ed: Buying land. There’s a couple of real existential risks out there. Don’t ever, ever underestimate (your siblings) even if you’re way smarter than them.

The divorce rate in Canada is running approximately 50 per cent. Make sure you have a plan so that the farm doesn’t blow up if you and your partner have a difference of opinion or a disagreement that you just can’t work out. Otherwise you’re not farming anymore. Be careful.

If you want to rent land, or if you want to buy your neighbour’s land — you have to be more professional than your neighbours. You have to be the best of the best so that when your neighbours talk about who they’re going to rent or sell to, they talk about you.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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