When the Keddy family first began succession planning, their advisor had a grim warning.
“We sat down with our accountant who told us there was a study that found only 1 in 12 first-generation farms are successfully transferred,” says Philip Keddy, who with parents Doris and Charles, operates Charles Keddy Farms Ltd. near Kentville, N.S.
But the 28-year-old is quick to add “that doesn’t mean parents should be ultra-cautious as they help the next generation take over the farm.” Rather, he says, it’s an argument for the reverse –young farmers need to be given the freedom to fail.
“I know that’s hard for Dad, but he understands that is part of learning,” says Keddy. “For example, I might decide to plant wheat in a field and he knows from experience – because that field has low spots – it’s not a good choice. But he’ll let me make that decision and learn from my mistakes.”
In fact, that’s exactly what his parents did, and it worked out pretty well. Their nursery is now one of the largest propagators of strawberries in the country. Charles Keddy, now 59, didn’t grow up on a farm, but liked working outdoors and growing crops. After graduating from ag college, he and Doris bought a 30-acre farm in 1977, and Charles went to work for a neighbour, strawberry grower Gilbert Allen. At the time, Allen only sold his root stock in Canada, but was getting a lot of calls from Florida strawberry growers who wanted his early-bearing, disease-free plants.
Unable to fill all those orders, Allen urged Charles to get into the plant propagation business. Today, the 450-acre farm ships 20 million strawberry plants annually (60 per cent to the U.S.) and employs 75 seasonal workers.
But despite all their success, there were missteps.
“When they first got started, my parents used a broker, but he wasn’t remitting all the money,” says Keddy. “We almost lost the farm because of that. So my parents flew to Florida to personally meet all of our customers and contract directly with them. We still do that. We not only shake hands with our customers, but also learn what they think of our product and how we can make it better.”
In recent years, those trips have made the Keddys more aware of the risks that come with doing business outside of the country, which prompted a 2009 decision to diversify into sweet potatoes (a warm-weather crop most experts thought wasn’t suited to the Annapolis Valley).
“My parents made mistakes and learned from them, and they understand it’s also important to allow me to try new things and learn from that,” says Keddy.
Keddy has done his part to earn that trust. He has diplomas in both agricultural business and plant technology, and has taken the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management program. Part of his ongoing education is exposing himself to new ideas by serving in organizations such as the Nova Scotia Young Farmers’ Forum and Farm Management Canada (currently Vice-Chair of both).
Gradually, but steadily, he’s been given more responsibility for managing the farm.
“I used to spend 75 per cent of my time on the tractor,” says Keddy. “But now it’s more like 25 per cent. The rest of my time is spent managing the business.”
The Keddy family started the succession process two years ago with the goal of putting Philip and his wife Katey (Philip’s two sisters are pursuing careers outside of agriculture) in a position to take over the farm in 10 years.
“It’s a process – not something you can get done tomorrow,” he says. “Over that time, I’ll be taking over more of the management, but I’ll still be farming with my parents.”
The process is complex and many issues aren’t easy to talk about, says Keddy, adding he now understands why their accountant issued his warning.
“I have friends who are older than me and their dads still make all the decisions,” he says. “There are others who don’t even get to see the books until they’re 35 or 40, so they don’t even really know if there’s a viable business to take over.”
If that’s the dynamic on your farm, then Keddy has a single word of advice: Talk.
“It’s hard, it really is. But it’s all about communication. And if you’re not able to talk about succession, then how are you going to succeed at it?”