Thinking back to 2011, David Newcombe told his family that they’d missed a milestone on their farm — and a chance to throw a big party. But another chance will come.
“In 2061 we’ll have a 300-year anniversary,” says Newcombe, now 28.
That’s a lot of confidence, yet on this farm, you might say they’ve earned their right to it.
When David enters shared ownership of Cornwallis Farms with his father, uncle and cousin, he will be the 10th generation of this family to do so.
“We’ve been around awhile,” is how his mother, Geneve Newcombe, describes their family’s long tenure on what is today a 2,000-acre livestock and grain farm located at Port Williams in Nova Scotia’s picturesque Annapolis Valley.
Actually, “awhile” is an understatement. The farm has been continuously owned by direct descendants since the mid-1700s. Newcombes were farming here long before the Industrial Revolution, a century before the American Civil War, when the rest of Canada — not even Canada then — was still a vast wilderness.
Is this the oldest family farm in Canada? It’s hard to know, but clearly it’s among the oldest. “I’ve never encountered anyone else who has been able to date their farm back to the 1700s,” says David.
He feels mighty proud of their family’s story and the role he’ll continue to play in it.
In a couple of years’ time he’ll assume an ownership role on the farm alongside his parents, Geneve and Craig Newcombe, and Craig’s brother Brian and Brian’s wife Edna.
They’re direct descendants of Deacon John Newcombe and his wife — her name is not recorded — and their three sons Eddy, John and Jonathon. They arrived in1761, when Nova Scotia — and of course, the rest of the country — was still a vast wilderness. They were part of a migration northward out of Connecticut that year, attracted by land grants by the British government who had expelled some 6,000 Acadians from the region.
This was Cornwallis in Lower Canada at that time and their land grant was “a half-acre of house-lot in the compact part of the town for residence and several large lots in the vicinity,” according to Farming in the Commonwealth, a document produced in England and used for education in the Commonwealth post-Second World War era. It extensively describes Cornwallis Farms, which by then was an exemplary Canadian farm.
The document describes the farm’s early years in great detail, including how, until the late 1930s, it had extensive apple orchards, plus a few acres devoted to pears and peaches.
It was Craig’s and Brian’s grandfather, Robert F. Newcombe, who would begin to concentrate the farm’s operations on poultry and dairy.
Today the farm encompasses approximately 2,000 acres where the Newcombes produce forages, corn, soybeans and wheat. Craig Newcombe established a feed mill on the farm some years ago, so all cropped acres supply feed for their present-day herd of 70 purebred Holsteins. The farm’s enterprises additionally include a 24,000 egg layer operation and six barns which are used to grow 1.8 million kg of broilers each year.
There were frequent brother partnerships managing this farm as it evolved over two and a half centuries, Craig and Brian Newcombe’s current partnership being the most recent.
The family is unaware of any time in its history when the farm wasn’t destined to transition to the next generation.
And, adds Geneve, “I don’t know that there was any time when anybody thought it wouldn’t work out.
“Sometimes it started out as two brothers and ended up as just one,” says Geneve of what she knows of family history. “It’s always just sort of worked out. There was always someone in the family to continue on.”
Geneve Newcombe herself arrived here in 1988 after her marriage to Craig. The couple have three children — Robert, David and Kathleen. Brian and Edna have two sons, Evan, who has just finished Grade 12, and Ryan, currently in Grade 8. Daughter Leah is working at completing her CPA.
The two families are very encouraged by Evan’s evident strong interest in the farm, too.
But as Geneve told a session on farm succession at a Farm Management Canada conference before Christmas, with a legacy like this it’s been essential that their family have “those important conversations” about how the next generation transitions in. She recalls one of those talks with her oldest son who, while still in high school, assumed it would be his destiny to farm.
“I said to him, ‘Is that what you want to do’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?’” she recalls. His mother told him they wanted him to do what would make him happy. Today Robert Newcombe is an engineer and a partner with a firm in Halifax.
Meanwhile, their youngest child, Kathleen, is in her final year at Dalhousie finishing her master’s of occupational therapy.
Their son David took time to make up his mind, too. He did not commit to the farm straight out of high school, but first earned a commerce degree at St. Mary’s University. That was “thinking time,” he says.
“It allowed me to pursue other careers if that was my choice. I wanted to leave my options open.”
But after four years of school and summers spent working on the farm — plus a stint with Egg Farmers of Canada’s Young Farmers program — he’d realized that the farm was truly his calling.
“My dad was giving me more responsibilities when I was at home, and I found that first and second summer just enjoying farming more and more, and actually dreading going back to Halifax and living that style of life.”
That commerce degree, meanwhile, will bring a complementary skill set to those of his father and uncle who have agricultural educations in animal science and plant science, respectively. His business degree has helped him learn to read financial statements, manage expenses and revenues, and have the right skills for making financial decisions like optimum times to take out loans versus leases. He feels much more able to join in family discussions with accountants, he adds. “It took a big learning curve away from me.”
“And it’s going to be helpful towards our farm’s continuing success.”
Which of course, is now his own life’s ambition and aspiration, as it has been for all those previous generations of Newcombes.
But even with more than 250 years of transitions without any written plan, the Newcombes have not taken for granted that the progression of the generations will continue either.
Geneve, who looks after the farm’s books and general administration, describes “taking the bull by the horns” a few years back around getting a written transition plan in place.
They were involved with one begun when Craig’s father was alive but never finalized. It was certainly not that there were any disagreements on the horizon, she says. But she’d begun paying close attention to the farm management advice that farmers were receiving around succession planning, and the emphasis on making this all-important decision well-informed by all the best available resources.
“Up until then we’d been talking a lot among ourselves,” she says. “But I hadn’t talked to my other children.” She adds it was also around that time that talk with their eldest son helped clarify his expectations. That was also when the meetings with accountants and lawyers began.
Cornwallis Farms developed a business plan after that. And in January 2020 they also completed a shareholders’ document detailing how shares are to be distributed, and timelines for future transitions to unfold.
David was part of this planning throughout, a process Geneve describes as formal, even as the meetings held with the entire family were informal.
“We’re very strategic before we make decisions. Our succession plan discussions were often held over supper,” she says. “We would have family meals together with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and their family. We talk it over at the meal. We don’t vote. We just all agree.”
In short, the Newcombes agreed that incoming generations will be expected to put in five consecutive years of continuous engagement on the farm, and also to have reached the age of 30 before assuming any ownership. The intent is to ensure the individual coming in has been able to demonstrate a commitment and an understanding of what is involved in running the farm as well as having had time to assess if farming is the right career for them.
The family has also updated their wills to reflect the details of this agreement.
It’s a family triumph when any well-managed farm, carefully stewarded over more than one generation, is successfully passed to the next, but a farm with the longevity of the Newcombes is especially inspirational. After all, how many more farms, like theirs, may one day be marking their two- or three-century milestone?
There will be more, if the process of ensuring a successful transition is taken as seriously as it has been on Cornwallis Farms.
There’s one more very essential element to understanding the Newcombes’ story. It is that no one generation of their family ever views the farm as theirs and theirs alone. Their view of their relationship to the farm has informed all their decision-making regarding the farm’s operation, said Geneve.
“It’s not ours to sell,” she says. They use the word ‘entrusted’ to describe what it means to have this farm between them.
“Some people might use the word ‘given,’ she adds. “But we like to think of it as being entrusted. For my husband and I, and our brother-in-law and sister-in-law, our job is to maintain a profitable farm, take care of the land, take care of the animals, and keep the farm in as good a position or better position as we entrust it to the next generation to take care of.”
David is now newly married to Chrissy as of 2019, and settling into one of the farm’s four residences.
He echoes the rest of the family’s philosophy almost verbatim as he talks about what he, too, sees as the responsibility of all future generations on Cornwallis Farms.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to tell people I am a 10th-generation farmer. It’s really an honour,” he says. But he stresses that being part of this long line of family underscores his view that it will never be his farm exclusively either. “It’s a farm that I’m going to take care of and help grow and really try to preserve it for the next generation of our family that’s going to manage it,” he says. “I see it as my responsibility to shepherd it through and take care of it for my time, and hopefully leave it in a better position and a better place for the next generation.”
David has a number of things on his mind as he prepares for the future. The labour shortage in agriculture is one, and he anticipates bringing in new technology and barn design to improve the farm workplace. He’s also looking to introduce more energy efficiency and to lessen the farm’s overall environmental footprint in the years ahead.
“I’d like to find as many ways as possible to help with environmental causes, whether that’s finding renewable energy sources to power our buildings or heat capture to reduce heating costs, or doing more no till and trying to spread less fertilizer.”
It’s a lesson in how farmers approach sustainability, especially coming, as it does, on a farm that’s been managed so well it’s remained more than two and half centuries under their ownership.
Some of us might even want to drop a hint we’d like an invitation to that big celebration David and Chrissy, and Evan will host someday.
It’s 41 years down the road, of course. But evidently, Newcombes do tend to plan decades — and decades — ahead. Thought of that big day gives us all hope, no matter where we farm in Canada.
“I definitely do want to have a party one day,” says David. “That’ll be in 2061. I’ll be somewhere in my 60s by then.” CG
Photography: Light and lens photography
For Craig (left), David, Ryan and Brian, and for the entire family, the path to succession has focued on merging the lessons of two and a half centuries of family history with the realities of running an efficient, profitable farm operation.
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The extended Newcombe family, top (left to right): Geneve, Craig, Brian and David.
Bottom (left to right): Evan, Edna, Chrissy and Ryan.
We’re very strategic,” Geneve agrees, adding that success has come from learning how to stick with a formal succession process, but talking and interacting informally as a family within it