Handing off the farm to an outsider

Al Boyko and Helene Tremblay-Boyko got an early start on their unique retirement plan because they knew they were in uncharted territory. There were no models, at least in Saskatchewan, for the way they wanted to pass on their farm.

The couple have three daughters. None of them want to farm and they live in Vancouver; Galveston, Texas; and just outside Edmonton. Owning a farm in east-central Saskatchewan just wouldn’t be practical.

Boyko and Tremblay-Boyko plan to live in their house on their farm for as long as they can. When they can no longer manage the farm, the land will be donated to Farmland Legacies, a Saskatchewan-based land conservancy, which will assume that task.

Who their land goes to is important; how it’s stewarded is crucial.

The farm, comprising 1,440 acres, north of Canora, Sask., is a bit hilly. It’s peppered with sloughs and bluffs of poplar and willow, and other native species provide shelter to lots of wildlife as well as a herd of 100 grass-fed, organically raised cattle. They also grow organic grain, grass and legumes.

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“We’re looking at some way to involve a new and younger farmer so we don’t have to just sell off our farm because it would be bought up by a conventional farmer in the area and they would drain it and clear it and level it,” Boyko said.

“At the same time, we need to use our land for our retirement income. We’re trying to find a way to get someone to farm the land without selling the farm.”

Boyko and Tremblay-Boyko intend to go on living in their house on their home quarter and would be available to mentor and farm-sit when the new farmers need a break.

They began their quest in 2009 with ads in farm publications. That got results, but the candidates the ad found weren’t interested in renting the land — they wanted to buy it — and that would continue to be a sticking point for future candidates.

Land ownership is generally pretty important to Canadians even as prices spiral to a point where it is more and more difficult, they say.

When a young South American woman wrote to Tremblay-Boyko that she and her husband wanted to immigrate to Canada and in fact wanted to live on a farm, the Boykos thought their search had ended. They already knew the young woman’s family and knew their values were similar. The young couple, Anita and Albano, leased cattle from a not-for-profit organization and soon had built up a herd of 65.

At the same time Albano found an off-farm job and Anita took a two year course in prairie horticulture offered collaboratively by the University of Manitoba, Olds College and the University of Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, ongoing immigration problems compelled them to leave Canada.

“The immigration targets just kept changing all the time,” Tremblay-Boyko said.

“I don’t know if it would be different now.”

That experience left the couple discouraged, but after a break of about two years they were ready to try again, this time with the help of a website, Farmlink.net.

FarmLink.net describes itself as “a cross between Realtor.ca and eHarmony: farm-seekers can find detailed property facts as well as the terms of lease or succession arrangements, while retiring farmers and farmland owners can learn about the aspirations and values of the farmers they might work with and to connect with each other through a confidential message system.”

Boyko and Tremblay-Boyko were the first farm owners in Saskatchewan to post their farm on the Farmlink site. Most of the site’s farm seekers were from British Columbia and Ontario. It was difficult for some of them to wrap their heads around the idea of a farm of more than 1,400 acres.

“We learned a new term. They called us broad acre farmers,” Boyko said.

Added Tremblay-Boyko: “What I discovered pretty early on was that the candidates we might mesh with the best were people in livestock, so I started looking at who wants to raise cattle/sheep/goats.… I was proactive. I must have sent out 200 emails.”

Around this time the couple acquired an additional 16 acres near their farm. Once a farmyard, it has electrical power to the site, several mature trees and a log barn that is sound. The new property is available to be purchased by whoever they might enter into a farming partnership with.

Their goal may be in sight. They’re getting to know an Alberta family, Dale and Stacey Maier and their two children, and so far, so good. They’ve met with the Maiers and the potential young farmers have made several visits to the farm. They raise goats.

The Maiers will require only a small portion of the land for their enterprise, so the search will continue for another livestock operation to rent the rest of the land.

“We’re requiring sustainable practice but haven’t hammered out a deal,” Tremblay-Boyko said.

There will be separate agreements for the acreage for purchase and for machinery use.

The Maiers are also optimistic.

“I think it will be good for us because it allows us to get into farming without having to put a lot of money up front, which we don’t have right now,” Stacey Maier said.

“It helps us get into it, pay for things as we have money. My husband is still going to be working. He’s self-employed as a heavy duty mechanic. I’ll stay at home with the kids and run the farm part. This would allow us to farm without coming up with this huge amount of money to purchase everything up front. It allows us to start small and build as we can and hopefully end up with less debt and more profit. And it also helps because Al and Helene have been farming for a while and it’s nice to have mentors.

“We weren’t much interested in the traditional, ‘borrow lots of money; have lots of debt.’ We had been looking for an alternative way to get into agriculture. And Al and Helene are amazing and I can hardly wait to start working with them, to be honest.”

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