In launching this series of columns on farm succession, our goal is to offer the readers of Country Guide something unique, something we feel you will be able to relate to and learn from. We want to introduce you to the Hunter family. Of course names will be changed to protect identities of our clients, but we want you to have the chance to develop a genuine understanding of this family and their journey through succession.
The goal of this five-part series is to allow you to experience the process through the eyes of several different members of the family.
We want you to feel compassion for individual family members, to learn both about the process and the outcomes that can be achieved, and to be inspired.
Most of all, we want you to feel empowered to begin courageous conversations with your own family about the future of your farm.
So, meet the Hunters, a multi-generational farm family in southwestern Ontario. Really, they could farm anywhere; the process works across farm types, but in their particular example, they have an average-sized, mixed operation of crops and dairy. The Hunters own 500 acres, rent 500 acres, and milk 120 head. The farm is not incorporated. When we begin our succession journey, the farm is proudly owned primarily by Mary, an 80-year-old widow. Let us begin with her story.
Mary Hunter, 80 years old
Mary and her late husband, Jack, inherited the farm from her family back in the mid-1900s. Mary grew up on the family farm and went on to raise her own family there when she married Jack. Together they bore two children, Bruce and Eleanor. Tragically, they lost Eleanor to polio at the age of two. Jack and Mary did not have any other children and Bruce grew up on the farm as an only child. Bruce worked alongside Jack for his entire life until Jack passed away two years ago.
“Bruce never spoke to me about wanting sole ownership or having any changes made to the farm,” Mary recalls. “When Jack passed away, we just continued the way it always was. I don’t understand the need for change all of a sudden.”
Mary retains ownership of the farm and she and Bruce are now partners on several parcels of land purchased jointly over the last 20 years by Jack and Bruce. Mary felt this had always worked for them, with Bruce and Jack also splitting the farm income. She doesn’t want to feel forced out of her ownership at this time. While she wants to ensure the farm stays in the family, any change in ownership structure creates fear for her future, including fears of marital breakdown and of family conflict.
“If I lose ownership, where do I live and how will I support myself?” was one of the first questions Mary asked us.
Bruce Hunter, 55 years old
Bruce has only known life on the farm. He began working alongside his dad at a very young age, learning from him daily and following his lead. The farm was his life as a child and continues to be in adulthood. It is where he built a home for his wife, Susan, where they raised their three children together, and where he works to this day. Yet, it hasn’t ever been his.
“I’ve always envisioned my son having the farm,” Bruce tells us during our first meeting. He is referring to the younger of his two sons who works with him full time on the farm. “He’s been here since day one, and he’s never left. It’s what is fair… I don’t see how it could work with two of them working here full time.”
Bruce is referring to his daughter, Maggie, who works in the ag industry on another farm. She recently expressed a desire to come back to the home farm, which is why the family sought our help.
But Bruce is also not in a position to give the farm to his son or his daughter — he hasn’t yet had full ownership himself. Additionally, there is still another child of Bruce and Susan’s to consider. Regardless, his goal is clear from the outset. Bruce wants his family’s legacy protected; he wants clarity on how to get there and he wants a pathway for transition that recognizes the years of service his son has put into the farm while also being fair to his other children.
Susan Hunter, 54 years old
Susan married Bruce when she was 20 years old. She happily raised their three children at the farmhouse and enjoyed what she described as an idyllic life. “Our children had a pleasant childhood. Yes, it was full of hard work and long days, but we were happy. We all got along and there have been no real disruptions to that.”
It’s clear from Susan that she cares deeply about all three of her children and is determined to advocate for equality among them during this process. “Yes, our youngest has worked with Bruce since he was little, but they all did work on the farm at some point in their lives,” she points out. “I’m upset with how vocal Bruce has been about his intention to gift the farm to only our youngest. In my mind, this should be one-third to each of them.”
Susan also shares with us something Bruce didn’t — their daughter wants to come home and farm. “Bruce refuses to see a pathway for this,” she states.
Matthew Hunter, 30 years old
Matthew is the eldest of Bruce and Susan’s three children. He shares his mom’s recollections of a peaceful childhood and enjoys positive relationships with his family. Matthew lives two hours away from the farm with his wife, Sarah, who is a teacher. Together they share Bruce and Susan’s only current grandchildren: Owen who is five and Hudson who is four. Matthew works as an engineer and isn’t interested in farming as a career. While he has fond memories of milking cows and working in the fields with his father and siblings, he highly values the life he has built for himself and his family. He reveals, “It would be great to see a pathway for my sons, though, in case they decide they want to farm one day.”
Maggie Hunter, 28 years old
Maggie is the middle child of Bruce and Susan and their only daughter. She’s made a name for herself in the farming community, though not on the family farm. She is working for another dairy farm, where she has been for the past four years, and she has significantly increased the herd’s productivity through feed changes she identified using a new app.
“My dad always told me, the same as Matthew, to go and get an education, and I did that,” she explains. “He just never talked to us about how and when to come back.”
Maggie graduated from the University of Guelph with a BComm. in food and agriculture and currently specializes in technology at the dairy farm where she is working. In addition to increased herd productivity, she also computerized their accounting practices. She feels both these skills would be helpful at her home farm.
During our conversations, Maggie made it clear that she wants a pathway back to ownership of the family farm. “I did what I was told to do. I got an education, I made a career for myself, and now I want to apply my skills at my own family farm.” She acknowledges that she is aware her father wants her brother to have the farm. “I think it’s about the name; my future children won’t carry on the Hunter name and that’s a struggle for Dad. He would feel his legacy is gone.”
Mark Hunter, 26 years old
The youngest of the three Hunter children, Mark, says his parents always treated him differently than his siblings. “They had opportunity; they were encouraged to leave, to get educated, and to develop new friends. I was always told I couldn’t leave because no one would be here to help Dad.”
Mark has a high school education and very few friends. “There’s never been time for me to get off the farm and meet people like Maggie and Matthew did,” he shares. “It’s always been different for me.” Mark has been working side-by-side with his dad since he was young, with the expectation that he would inherit the farm. He married his wife, Grace, two years ago and they are currently expecting their first child.
Grace Hunter, 25 years old
Grace married into the Hunter family two years ago, when she and Mark wed at the farm. They built a small house on the family property and have always been told the farm would be theirs one day. “There had never been a question about who was getting the farm until we started this succession process,” she says. Grace comes from a farming family 400 km away where she and Mark have been offered a pathway to ownership of their dairy farm in central Ontario.
“I am trying to be patient and understanding with Mark’s family, but it’s hard when my family is willing to commit right now.” Grace isn’t satisfied with Mark being “told the farm is his” but with no plan in place. With her first child on the way, she is anxious for stability.