Farmers take gradual approach to transition

Lesley and Jim Hill of Sylvan Lake operate Hidden Valley Garden with their daughter and son-in-law near Sylvan Lake, Alta.  |  Mary MacArthur photo

Jim and Lesley Hill and their daughter and son-in-law mapped out a five-year transition plan for passing on the family farm

SYLVAN, LAKE, Alta. — Summers of picking weeds and selling vegetables had left Jim and Lesley Hill exhausted.

Their market garden was supposed to be a small retirement project. It had become a full-time job and the idea of selling the farm was attractive.

Originally, they thought it might help if they stopped selling their Hidden Valley Garden produce at the local Sylvan Lake Farmers’ Market, but the customers just came to their farm and bought through the farm store.

“We figured we’d have to quit completely because customers wouldn’t let us wind down a little bit,” said Jim.

“We were getting tired.”

It took them by surprise when their daughter, Jamie, called and wondered if she and her fiancé, Justin Kreutz, could take over the farm.

“They just phoned one day out of the blue,” said Lesley.

“Who would have thought they liked weeding because they sure didn’t when they were growing up.”

The two couples sat down and mapped out a five-year transition plan that would allow the younger couple to slowly transition to ownership of the farm and gardening business. Now at the end of the third year in the transition plan, Lesley said it has been a good move for both families.

“It really feels good to see the next generation take over.”

One of the keys to success has been the slow transition to management and ownership. The gradual transition over five years has given everybody time to see whether it was really what they wanted.

In the first year, Jamie put her job on hold and worked with her parents learning the ebbs and flows of the business.

In the second year, Justin joined the business. The young couple took over responsibility for hiring staff and making the decisions. That year’s cold, wet weather created its challenges, but at the end of the year they were still keen.

Along with their third year came COVID-19 and its challenges, but it was also successful, increasing their sales by 80 percent from the year earlier.

“Last year, they had a really big year and they are learning how to run a business and handle employees and how to hire employees and reach new markets. They’re much different. I don’t think they realize how much more experience they have compared to three years ago. It’s huge,” said Jim.

The Hills moved to their farm on the outskirts of Sylvan Lake in 1992. A a year later they planted saskatoon bushes for fun and Colorado spruce trees as a tuition fund. Eventually, they added vegetables and more fruit trees, and when they built a new house, added a bed and breakfast.

With two children, other jobs and the garden, the family was busy.

“We were able to make a living and we kept getting bigger until we got too old and too tired and started to say ‘I think we’re done’, ” said Jim.

Seeing a younger family member take over the business built from nothing is exciting, said Lesley.

“We would have sold it at some point and it would have been subdivided and that’s hard to watch. We still feel we own it to some degree and don’t agree with all of the decisions, or things that are whipping around, but we try not to stand in the way and say, ‘oh no, that won’t work’, or ‘you’re spending too much money’.

“We’re trying not to do that, but we’re also trying to be a little bit cautious. We want them to have time to learn some more about the business before they jump in with everything,” she said.

In the three years of working together, Jim said they’ve called time-out twice to discuss problems. As a list-maker, each week Jim walked around and noted jobs that needed doing and would share his lists.

“The lists would get pretty long as they get into the season. They were making fun of me and laughing and calling me list man. So I thought I guess they don’t want me to do this so I quit. Then stuff wasn’t getting done and I was getting frustrated and then led to a family meeting,” said Jim.

It turned out everyone did like the lists, but were just having fun. Now the lists are back with the younger couple making the lists.

“There are not many things now. They are pretty much on top of it.”

With 10 to 12 acres of vegetables and four to five acres of fruit trees, the garden U-pick and farm store keeps the families busy from July to October, but if the family is to make a viable year-round living, Jim estimates the vegetable patch will need to be doubled.

COVID-19 and the desire for fresh, local vegetables has shown the family there is a future in producing vegetables.

Communication and time have been key to ensuring the transition works, they said.

“They needed the five years to gain experience and build it up,” said Jim, and added if more time is needed after five years, that will be an option.

Making sure the person, or couple taking over the operation is the right person, is also key, said Jim, who helped with transitions in his previous jobs.

“The biggest problem I saw was the person they had identified as transitioning in wasn’t capable. Somewhere along the line you have to be brutally honest with yourself that you have someone on the receiving end that has the ability to do it. So many times the receiver doesn’t have the ability to manage.

“I think we lucked out that our daughter and son-in-law are really interested and they got all kinds of skills and background and education and experience. I like to think that if they didn’t have those, we would have talked them out of buying the place,” he said.

When the transfer of ownership is official, Lesley said they plan to stay involved to help out with their grandchildren, packaging vegetables and other jobs around the garden. They will also allow themselves the odd vacation.

“I see us giving ourselves permission to go away or go see people in the summer instead of every day being out here.”

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