Unique farm succession plan moves forward

A Saskatchewan couple hand-picks their successors, ensuring the operation is farmed the way they would prefer

While all succession plans are unique, one playing out on the farm of Al Boyko and Hélène Tremblay-Boyko near Canora, Sask., could be described as more than a little outside the box.

Readers met the couple in The Western Producer two years ago. At that time they were looking for a young couple who would farm their land, and they were willing to mentor them. They were in conversation with a young couple from Alberta and thinking, maybe this was a match.

Their farm consists of 1,440 acres, peppered with sloughs and bluffs of poplar and willow. There’s a commercial herd of 100 organically raised cattle and they grow organic grains, grasses and legumes.

Selling was not an option, Boyko said at the time, “because it would be bought up by a conventional farmer in the area and they would drain it and clear it and level it.”

Retaining ownership of the land was also important to them because its earnings would be part of their retirement income.

Eventually, when they could no longer manage to farm the land, they planned to donate it to Farmland Legacies, a Saskatchewan-based land conservancy. As part of the conservancy, the land would never be sold. Instead, it would be rented to young farmers, and Al and Hélène’s wishes regarding retention of vegetation and wetlands would be honoured.

The search began in 2009 with ads in farm periodicals. There were responses but the candidates didn’t want to rent; they wanted to buy.

Then they met a young South American couple who wanted to immigrate to Canada to farm. Ideologies meshed and the two families were working splendidly together, until the South Americans’ immigration plans were stymied and they returned to South America.

Back at square one, Boyko and Tremblay-Boyko tried a new website, Farmlink, where they eventually found Dale Maier and Stacy Wiebe, a young couple from Alberta. They wanted to farm but they didn’t want the big debts that land ownership would bring.

After lots of phone conversations and a couple of visits, Maier and Wiebe moved to Saskatchewan in April 2018. They set up a mobile home on a 16-acre parcel of land in the area, which the Boykos had bought for that purpose. Maier and Wiebe have since entered into an agreement to buy that land, which already has electrical service and a sound barn. Last summer they began work on a house.

They also moved their herd of goats to their new home. Maier, a heavy-duty mechanic, has a job at a farm dealership in nearby Preeceville. They’ve since increased their goat herd and begun selling goat meat. Last summer, the couple bought both square and round bale balers and put up hay on their acreage for their goats.

Wiebe has been looking after the cattle. Although she’s an experienced goat farmer, she had never worked with cattle until they moved here, said Boyko. She’s a willing learner and has helped with tasks such as vaccinations and sorting, as well as looking after the cows on a daily basis.

Over time, Maier and Wiebe will purchase the herd.

Overall, the succession is going in the direction we wanted, said Tremblay-Boyko.

“When they first got here, we made a five-year plan, and when we looked back on it just two months ago we realized for the most part, they had really achieved quite a bit of the first year of the five-year plan.”

Building their house has probably not progressed as quickly as they would have hoped, she continued, but they have completed an insulated structure that will house the various components necessary for a farmhouse water system. Their home itself will be built from steel grain bins and in modules around the water system structure.

Through the winter, the four will work out an arrangement for a lease-to-own agreement to transfer the cattle herd to Maier and Wiebe.

When that agreement is signed Maier and Wiebe would then do all the baling, feeding and daily management of the cattle. The Boykos will continue in their role as mentors.

Rental of hay and pasture land will be part of the agreement.

Overall, things are going well, and almost to schedule.

If they had to do it over, the Boykos say they would have started sooner and advise others who choose this model for succession to begin as much as 15 years before their planned retirement date. It takes time to find the right fit, it takes time to make life-altering decisions such as whether or not to make a move and it takes time to learn new skills.

“It’s all about relationship building,” Tremblay-Boyko said. It’s not as neat and tidy as selling it and then you’re done with it. You’ve got to build this relationship, you’ve got to build the trust. You’ve got to earn the trust as well; it’s a two way street and that’s the tricky part.”

It’s hard to know when to back off and when to jump in. I think we tend to want to jump in more than is necessary.”

“It’s hard,” Boyko said, after a few moments thought, “hard to know when to jump in and when to back off. You know, during hay-making for example, it’s real difficult for me not to say to Dale, ‘oh, so you’re going to be at work from now till Friday. Do you want me to go bale your hay for you?’

“For him to ask is one thing, for me to say I should be the one to do it, is another. It may be helpful, it may get it done quicker but I’m not sure that’s always what’s needed.”

Regular meetings of the two couples are important, they say, and have to be arranged.

“You can’t do it when you’re driving a tractor, you can’t do it when you’re sorting cows. It has to be formalized,” said Boyko.

When there’s two families involved you’ve got to make time to talk about the plan. It doesn’t just happen.”

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