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When brothers Ryan and Noel Flitton signed up for business school with their father, it helped their Alberta farm turn a critical corner

The allure of farming runs strong in the Flitton family, so neither Gary Flitton nor his sons Noel or Ryan make any apology for having been drawn for the same reason back to the family’s 12,000 acres of scenic Alberta grain land east of the Rocky Mountains near Vulcan. They want to live a rural lifestyle.

Gary grew up on the farm that his parents purchased as 640 acres of bare land in the 1940s, but then in 1961 the family moved to Calgary to allow his sister to explore her musical interests.

Gary spent the next 10 years pining to be back on the farm. In 1970 he began farming in the summer and attended the University of Calgary to obtain his B.Sc. in agriculture during the winter. After marrying Bev in 1973 he moved back to farm full time.

Then comes a part of the story that is also familiar across the country. Gary quickly realized that his romanticized memories of farming didn’t quite match up to the realities of farming in the challenging ’80s and ’90s. “I went back when I was 20, and it wasn’t nearly as much fun as when I was a kid,” says Gary. “It was tough for a long time.”

But fast forward a generation, and in 2009, there was a kind of echo. Ryan, aged 34 at the time, returned to Vulcan after 12 years during which he had graduated from the University of Alberta with a business degree and worked in account management for a packaged goods company based in Kitchener.

When Ryan and wife, Jenna started a family, they decided they wanted their sons, now including Jayden (seven), Jace (five) and Beckham (two) to grow up in a rural setting, so they built a home across the lake from the family farm. Ryan also began to develop an interest in farming. “I saw opportunity with the business,” says Ryan. “I think overall the ag industry is primed for a successful future over the long run and I felt that if I wasn’t involved in the farm there wouldn’t be an opportunity for my children to farm, should they ever choose. It’s not a business someone can just get into anymore. It’s too capital intensive, and land is too expensive.”

There was a bit of irony at work, because just when Ryan was wondering about passing the farm on to his own sons, his father had been wondering whether there would be anyone that he could pass the farm to.

Not only had Ryan gone to the city, but Noel also left in 1999 to work with a custom combining crew.

But that same lifestyle lure eventually brought Noel back as well. “I came back for Christmas and I was driving west, and as I saw the mountains and the view I decided that I didn’t want to leave for that long again,” he says.

Noel took one last vacation to New Zealand and was back on the farm for good by the end of January 2000, where he has his own home a quarter-mile east of the farm with wife Amy and 22-month-old daughter Annabelle.

Although living a rural lifestyle was a huge factor in all three Flittons’ decision to return to the farm, they all understand that the farm must succeed as a business first if it is going to provide a life. Or, as Gary says, “If you don’t get it figured out that it’s business first and a lifestyle second, you’re not going to have the way of life at all.”

Again, there’s some irony here, because for many years Gary had wrestled with the idea that if we wanted to make the business thrive, he had to find a way to take control.

“I was the perfect whining farmer,” recalls Gary. “What was happening to us was everybody else’s fault. Blame the wheat board, blame the banks, the weather or whatever.”

Gary says he whined so perfectly that the CBC often featured him lamenting the woes of farming on their “Journal” or midday programs. “They loved me because I whined wonderfully,” says Gary. “Finally the light started to come on that this wasn’t getting me anywhere. I realized that I had to grab hold of the areas that I could effectively control. After that point I stopped hiding from what was happening financially, and aggressively grabbed hold of the issues and dealt with them. Whether it was a bill that wasn’t getting paid or a loan that we were going to have difficulty paying, I’d deal with it. It was just decent, common-sense business ethics really, and being self-disciplined enough to try and be a better producer.”

But it would be a mistake to underestimate the struggles, either then or now.

Today, the family’s Twin Valley Farms is at the point where it’s transitioning to the next generation and, just like thousands of other family-farm businesses across Canada, the Flittons are finding that it’s not an easy undertaking.

Gary is the first to admit that he’s a little stuck in his ways. “You head down this road your way because you’ve finally found this little avenue of success that seems to have worked, and it’s hard to change or to pass your vision on to the next generation,” Gary explains.

It’s not about ego. Gary is quick to admit he’s made plenty of mistakes, and although he recognizes the inevitability of change he’s heard too many nightmare stories about farm transitions. “I’m in my 60s and it’s time for me to back out the door, but that’s one of the most difficult things for a farming operation,” he says. “I remember hearing that only 15 per cent of multi-generational transitions, not just farming, but all companies, are successful and that’s pretty scary.”

Frustrating as it can be for the next generation, Ryan has come up with an idea that is helping all three of them with the process. Gary, Noel and Ryan are enrolled in the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management program (CTEAM) through Agri-Food Management Excellence (AME). Gary was reluctant to take the course at first and only agreed at the insistence of Ryan, who felt their commitment had to be all or nothing.

From the Alberta Farmer Express website: Report says business management the key to success in farming

“The reason I wanted all three of us to take CTEAM is because it’s really difficult to bring back ideas and try to implement change when nobody else really has been there and gone through that process as well,” says Ryan. “I was a big promoter of either we all take it, or none of us take it. It’s a pretty big commitment for all three of us to take off but I just knew that it would be a challenge, given our personalities, to implement any change if we weren’t all there experiencing it at the same time.”

Ryan’s business experience made him view the farm differently than Gary and Noel. “I saw a business that has had success, was financially viable, and was in a good position moving forward. There was real opportunity here. I think we were just at a point where we needed more structure in the business,” says Ryan. “On most farms, everyone is doing a little bit of everything and so that’s just what the structure becomes and as we’ve grown it creates more chaos within the organization if nobody really knows their role and their responsibilities.

“My biggest apprehension was working with family,” Ryan says. “We all have very different personalities, and I knew this would likely be one of our biggest challenges. But it was also one of our greatest assets. This is why I believe structure is so important.”

A big sticking point for Gary has been the financial management aspect of the business. Over the years, Gary has developed his own financial analysis tools including spreadsheets and cash flow forecasts that have worked really well for him.

“Part of what I was trying to transfer over to the boys is my financial analysis tools, but they’re self-evolved and they just weren’t grabbing a hold of them because they weren’t theirs,” Gary says. CTEAM is helping him to rest a lot easier on this point. “Through this process I can see that they’re picking up on the financial analysis tools that we’re using. I could see them working through it and the lights were coming on and I realized I don’t have to worry about this because they’re going to develop their own tools themselves and I don’t have to be so concerned that they get it all from me.”

Noel has begun working on ratio analysis and is handling the daily bookkeeping tasks. “I think it has helped both ways, with Dad realizing that there might be a different way for us to do things and Dad’s going to have some confidence in giving up some of his methods,” says Noel.

With everyone starting from the belief that the farm needs to function as a business, the Flittons have implemented practical, concrete steps to make sure it does, including building individual offices attached to the shop. “We used to all have home offices,” says Ryan. “Everybody was on board with putting in separate offices to come to work so that home is home and work is work. That’s helped a lot with communications.”

They also have a meeting room in the office area with a projector and screen where they can view the financials, crop plans or equipment options. They use it to hold daily meetings, when they’re not hard at it in the fields, with everyone who works with them on the farm, which includes three full-time employees and several seasonal helpers. “It’s a great tool to jointly ascertain priorities, delegate jobs and keep everyone on the same page,” says Gary. “We also have whiteboards with the jobs and priorities written down so they can be stroked off when they’re completed.”

For a number of years now the family has held its annual general meetings off farm — this year it was Palm Springs in February — where all the family get together, including spouses of the partners and the non-farming siblings, sisters Rheana (33) and Richelle (30), to make sure everyone is in the loop about the farm where they all grew up.

This year they’re also discussing a new vision for the farm that they’re evolving as part of their CTEAM training. Although they’ve only completed module one of the CTEAM program, which involves four, week-long components that are held in different cities throughout Canada over two years, the aim is to evolve a five-year strategic plan that will help guide them through the transition and set a direction for the future of the business.

For Twin Valley Farms a big part of that business strategy is developing a value proposition that sets them apart from other farm operations in the area and helps them to build relationships that will enable them to grow the business in a highly competitive environment for land. “In our area there is a huge number of Hutterite colonies so we see our expansion coming through being a preferred renter to different landowners in the area,” says Ryan.

Two years ago they began a program called Acres for the Community, where for every acre of land the farm rents from local landowners it donates $1 to a local charity or organization on behalf of that landowner and they also invite the landowner to match the donation. Over the past two years the program has raised over $13,000 for local community organizations. “For me, part of the core value of our business is the community that we’re in,” says Ryan. “Acres for the Community is to reiterate that we’re here to support the community. We are a family farm and we’re in the area and we’re here for the long haul and this is where we want our kids to grow up and enjoy being a part of it.”

Social responsibility and involvement in the community has always been important to the family, but until they took CTEAM it didn’t occur to any of them that some of the things they’re already doing are value propositions that interestingly also relate back to the very reason they all returned to the farm in the first place: the rural lifestyle.

The Flittons know that no one training course can be the panacea to their transition, but CTEAM is helping them to develop a measurable and fully implementable business plan and to take some baby steps towards the transition of the farm. Basic as it may seem, writing down the goals and objectives for the farm has been a huge starting point. “When these things are written down for everybody to understand and everybody has had input it brings everybody on board as to where we’re headed,” says Gary. “That’s where I see the big value for us. Ryan could see that. We have to develop this vision and this plan together.”

Everyone is learning something not just about the farm but about themselves and they’ve all realized that self-discovery is just part of the transition process and of building a successful business.

“Noel and I have sometimes felt Gary is a little bit of a micromanager, and I think he feels sometimes that we aren’t involved enough,” says Ryan. “My background has been almost 100 per cent hands off. I think in a farming situation you need a blend and I think that I’m learning to be a little bit more involved. My biggest challenge, however, was that I had been gone for 12 years, and I needed to re-learn farming. It’s been a steep learning curve.”

Gary has realized that he isn’t, can’t be and doesn’t have to be the source of all wisdom for the farm or his sons. “I realize that we certainly could have done better and taken advantage of other opportunities,” says Gary. “That in itself may be a bit of the key — to objectively analyze what you’re doing and not defend the mistakes you’re making.”

Noel has realized how important it is to have everyone on board as a team. Otherwise the diverse personalities of the three family partners can sometimes cloud the direction that the farm needs to take. For him the whole concept of a clear vision and setting core values is foremost. “It’s really important to stick to core values and define what you will do and what you won’t do,” says Noel. “Sometimes we struggle because we’re all different people here and we don’t all have the same world view or ideas. So to put our ideas into a statement that we all have to sign off on means I’ll have to compromise on some things and hopefully everyone else compromises on some things too.”

Says Noel: “As long as you are all on the same page, and as long as this company is defined by those values, that creates solidarity and something we can go forward with.”

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