About 2010, the tide turned. Or, the tides, with an “s.” Agriculture had finally left the gruelling 1990s behind, leading to an uptick in twenty-somethings with a realistic shot of making it on the farm. But it was also clear that this new generation was never going to start their careers the way their parents had started theirs’.
After 10 years of farm reality, have those young dreams survived, or been trampled? Are these new farmers at war with their parents, or are both sides finding new ways to work together? Do the young feel entitled, as some of the older generation can be heard to say, or do they lay awake worrying about debt? Or do they feel they’re climbing a hill with the crest in sight?
Every farm is different, but they’re also the same. So rather than survey the industry, Country Guide interviewed Adam and Amy Petherick and listened as they surveyed their own first decade.
A page in agriculture’s history has turned.
“Maybe we weren’t dreaming big enough,” Amy says.
It’s an observation and, more to the point, it’s also a lesson that this young couple plan to put to use in the next 10 years.
Country Guide had asked the pair how they — and the other 10-year farmers they know — are feeling about their progress in the past decade.
“Maybe we didn’t really know what was out there before we got into things,” Amy responds.
Then she gets concrete, as this generation does. “For Adam and I, we just undershot what we were capable of so many times and surprised ourselves… I remember coming home, going to workshops and doing strategic planning. We’d write out these five-year plans. And we’d have these five-year plans accomplished within two or three years.”
There’s a lot that went right to make that happen, of course, and they know it. This isn’t any more boastful a generation than earlier farmers. They appreciate that interest rates, great advice, supportive parents, in fact a ton of factors meshed together for them in ways maybe never seen before.
“Because interest rates were so low, so much has been feasible if you’re comfortable with the risk,” Amy says.
We’ll get back to those lucky breaks in a moment, but it’s important to comment here how there’s also a resolve about this young couple and many of their generation. They’ve got a core belief that, like never before, the risks may be big, but so is their opportunity to shape their own futures.
It’s having a sense of direction that matters, they think, and being relentless in tying the strategic and the day-to-day together into a single whole.
So they better make their decisions. And they better make them right, because if they’re on top of their game, and perform at that level, there will be rewards, including great careers.
Of course, life happens too. That’s something else we can’t skate past when talking about this generation. If you ask Amy and Adam Petherick these days what their most significant accomplishment is, they’re going to tell you it’s the birth of their first child.
At the end of a 10-year struggle with infertility, the Pethericks became parents in early 2020 with the arrival of their son, 10 lb. 13 oz. Lucas Dale Petherick.
“Ultimately, that drove a lot of progress in our farm career over the last 10 years,” Amy says of the countless medical appointments, the anxieties, the hopes — and the costs.
“We always had to weigh decisions, like another round of drugs versus buying a heifer at a consignment sale… it’s why I started in the seed business. My ‘seed money’ was our means of paying medical bills. We’d literally get quotes on treatment options and I’d break them down into the number of bags of seed I’d need to sell.”
Anyone who’s had a child can imagine what the couple are now experiencing: the sleepless nights, the giddy joy, fret and worry, and the nervous exhilaration that goes with hour-by-hour, day-by-day readjustment to life with a new baby.
“It’s incredible how it changes your mindset,” says Adam, 34. He recalls what a farm colleague told him a while back. “He said it’s a lot easier to make decisions if you know you’re either doing it for someone, or you have someone coming up behind you.”
Adam and Amy (she grew up on a cash crop farm about a half hour away) joined the farm partnership after both graduated with degrees in agricultural science from the University of Guelph and then married in 2009.
In 2014, after five years on the farm, Adam’s parents Evan and Marilyn invited them to become members of the family corporation. That, Amy says with emphasis, was “both” of them, including her as daughter-in-law. “It’s in print. It’s legal. I don’t just live here… they acknowledged me right away as part of the team.”
On several levels, it’s also one of the great differences in today’s agriculture.
In previous generations on most farms, Adam and Amy at this stage of their lives would be holding their tongues, hanging onto any word Dad or Mom might let drop about the future, hoping that they could soldier through the waiting years without losing their tempers or walking away, and hoping the farm would turn out to actually be as solid as it looked.
“Adam and I have the advantage taking over farms from people who lived that life,” Amy says. “The people who had to sit around and wait for their dad or father-in-law to come good on all the promises… they’re the people we’re working with, and they’re saying, ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll do to you what was done to me.’”
“Adam and I really feel we’ve benefited from our parents’ own personal experiences as the incoming successor… which wasn’t something their parents had necessarily experienced,” she adds. “Our peers will ask what our secret to success is in becoming full partners, especially those going through first- to second-generation successions. But we didn’t convince Adam’s parents to share ownership with us, that was their decision… You know, the success of a succession plan isn’t up to the incoming generation in my opinion. It’s all about the tone that the outgoing generation allows.”
But there’s an irony at play too, and it’s working in favour of their generation. The same land values that are making it so hard to expand are also pushing parents to get more involved in forward planning and setting a vision for the farm, Adam and Amy say. When the numbers go up, so does the incentive to make sure that farm investments are smart, and smartly made.
But even if you add them all together, those attitudinal and even the legal changes aren’t enough to make everything instantly easy and friction-free.
Says Amy, “My dad and I talk a lot about not always liking the things my cousin and I want to do, and he says, ‘I remember when all my ideas were shot down back when I was in your shoes, so let’s see what we can do.’ He’s really great about letting us make mistakes, within reason, because he knows we can’t always learn best from his advice and I’m really grateful for that.”
She laughs, “My in-laws have taken to calling it ‘farming with training wheels.’”
The primary result of their parents’ approach is certainly a rapid change of pace on both farms. They knew it would have to be. When Evan and Marilyn accepted the next generation into the business, they were milking just over 40 cows at the time, and everyone agreed things had to change to generate enough income for two generations.
The farm today is milking 72 Holstein and four Jersey cows in a head-to-head tie stall barn, with plans for more growth to come.
“We sat down and said if this is going to be a viable path for all four of us, we need to grow,” recalls Adam.
When the farm just down the road came up for sale, the farm’s land base increased and the new residence that came with it offered another opportunity to advance the family’s succession plan.
They also ultimately decided to significantly invest and upgrade operations on the farm. They wanted to increase the value of the farm’s overall production without significantly increasing herd size, and so acquired more quota, and made numerous capital investments for operational efficiency. New stock barns were built, nearly every piece of field equipment was upgraded, animal handling facilities were expanded as much as possible within the existing milking barn, data management software was purchased and some automation was adopted with a new robotic calf feeder.
They also consulted with nutritionists and veterinarians about boosting herd health to optimize milk production and pursued a more intensive breeding strategy.
“We’ve achieved some efficiencies and synergies over previous handling techniques to allow us, in a different way, to manage things and to focus on animal welfare and animal management more,” says Adam.
But they’re also firm believers that business strategy must work hand in hand with production excellence. Business strategy isn’t enough on its own. But to a greater degree than previous generations, they think that production on its own isn’t enough either.
“I’ve personally had to become a lot more comfortable with debt,” Amy says, something she and Adam believe their generation is approaching differently than their predecessors. “Our parents’ generation took out mortgages with the expectation that they would pay them off,” Adam says, “but our generation is willing to keep rolling those debts through our entire careers.”
“We’re aiming to operate within a debt-to-equity sweet spot,” Amy says. “We’re always conscious of the fact that there are opportunity costs required in becoming debt-free.”
So there’s something of a chicken-and-egg situation. The Pethericks know they’ve come along at a lucky moment when there’s so much more great advice and information available than ever before. Farm accountants and lawyers have upped their skill levels, and there’s simply more and better business advice available.
The couple admit their off-farm pursuits have often been strategic ways to build skills and acquire knowledge that would help them become better farm managers, a strategy which they believe has been widely adopted by their peers. Amy, for instance, used to write for Country Guide, and points to how talking to farmers and farm experts across the country, gave her access to what she calls “veteran advice.”
And there’s a lot of e-learning opportunities which they’ve benefited from too, although they don’t just use the internet to answer quick problems, the way you might go to YouTube in the shop. The Pethericks often invest internet time in studying European experiences, since farmers there tend to run into changing consumer demands before they arrive here.
Plus, of course, there are concerns about trade agreements and politics, and the future of supply management.
But as always on this farm, there’s strategy too.
“It has caused a lot of anxiety. We have seen market erosion and lost returns on our financial investments. Stress has gone up on a lot of farms and we’re no different,” Adam says.
Their decision to forge ahead, particularly Amy’s return to her family’s cash crop farm during Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, is ultimately based both on their confidence in an industry that historically has been able to support and develop young farm families and keep them in long prosperous careers — and also on their confidence that by becoming more flexible and nimble, they can make their operation more adaptable to future uncertainties.
“We’ve tried to prepare ourselves both financially and in terms of our physical resources to be able to handle this,” says Adam. “We made the determination that we had to grow and that we had to become more efficient and keep ourselves properly invested enough so the business would still have options if something drastic needed to happen.”
There’s another generational change too. Growing up, Adam and Amy’s parents encouraged them to have a backup plan. Taking that advice, they got their Guelph degrees so they could always work off-farm if needed.
But the new millennial is different. This isn’t a generation to work for a pittance on the farm, funding their living costs with off-farm jobs while hoping that the farm will eventually grow in value.
Amy, a former journalist, started operating her first seed dealership in 2011 and now sells Pioneer brand seed after surviving multiple company mergers.
Seeing the potential wages that Adam and Amy could pull down outside of their farming ventures has also been an eye-opener for their parents. “Dad voluntarily matches my going rate off the farm so that he’s not adversely impacting my earning potential,” Amy notes. It helps her justify working on the farm and saying no to those off-farm opportunities. And with a decade of agricultural experience and the high need for skilled employees in the current job market, she says practically any 10-year-in millennial could look at three or four new job opportunities annually.
That doesn’t mean Adam and Amy aren’t committed to their family farms though. They’ve invested those off-farm paycheques back into farm initiatives at times. They’ve also invested their time and talents into the local farm community, adopting the social responsibilities that both of their families view as part of their business identity.
Amy also accepted a position in 2015 on the local Ontario Federation of Agriculture board and served as Northumberland County’s provincial Policy Advisory Council representative in 2018. She’s currently serving as president for the Quinte Soil and Crop Improvement Association all the while being mentored by her father and working with a cousin on her own family’s farm.
Adam, meanwhile, became the Region 4 Director after his election to the board of Dairy Farmers of Ontario in mid-January this year, and this follows numerous other industry involvements on local and regional producer associations, continuing many longstanding family traditions (especially by volunteering annually at the Campbellford Fair) in addition to serving as a delegate for Ontario at a 2017 Future Leaders Conference in Winnipeg.
As the 2020s begin, the Pethericks feel they have grown both professionally and personally, but they continue to prepare for the future by perpetually committing to new goals. One of Amy’s is to dedicate herself to ongoing work with the Soil and Crop Improvement Association. She hopes to help facilitate more research and policy to support it. That’s all about long-term thinking and planning, too, of course.
“I hope to be contributing in a proactive way to industry initiatives in the coming years,” she says. “It’s the least we can do for an industry and community that has already done so much for us.”
She also says it’s becoming increasingly important in a retirement community located so close to Toronto and one that is steadily becoming more populated with non-farm residents, that they get ahead of any potential environmental issues that could arise in future.
Adam and Amy are also identifying targets for how they farm, as well. As farming gets more and more complicated, the Pethericks believe they must make progress on becoming managers.
They’ve already increased their staffing and the number of jobs that they hire in for, yet they are determined to keep finding ways to move the management yardsticks further.
Getting stuck doing jobs that could, in business terms, be done more efficiently by someone else, prevents them from using their time to contribute where their value is highest. It also erodes their quality of life.
Again, though, this puts them in new territory, and making progress will take careful planning and new ways of thinking, especially given the difficulty of finding good farm employees in today’s agriculture, and the equal challenge of retaining farm employees who have different expectations than farm workers of past generations.
But there is a confidence in this generation too.
“When we came home 10 years ago, we made a lot of changes in that first year,” Adam says. “Completely reinventing ourselves every decade seems to be becoming a pattern.”
Amy adds, “We were so wrong sometimes about our first 10 years — we were braced for hardship after witnessing the difficult times our parents had to survive just to stay in business — which ultimately became a limiting factor for us. We almost fenced ourselves in.
“The next 10 years, we’re prepared to be more open to a new range of possibilities for ourselves, both personally and professionally. I don’t know how we’re going to overcome all the challenges yet… but I’m excited to see how we manage whatever’s coming next!”
This article was originally published as ’10 years in’ in the March 31, 2020 issue of Country Guide.