A small but growing number of brother-and-sister farms across Canada are rewriting the rules on how families farm together in a new spirit of gender equality.
Even more than that, though, they’re showing the rest of the industry how to step up their productivity with new management strategies that let every member of the team not only contribute at their best, but also get a charge out of their work.
Country Guide talked to three brother-sister combinations to find the source of that magic. In every case, they may be farming together partly because of what might be called the accidents of genetics and family, but there’s no accident about how they use open communications and defined roles to drive their productivity.
Nor is it any accident that they’re building their partnerships on the fact that, as brother and sister, they understand each other better than anyone else in the world.
Below is our first instalment in showcasing these three dynamic sibling partnerships.
Misty Glen Holsteins: For the Pettits, open communication is a must, but so is having their own areas of responsibility and expertise
At some level, every brother-sister story is unique, and that’s certainly true of Misty Glen Farms near Belmont, Ont., where Suzanne and Tom Pettit milk about 50 cows with a robot in an efficient freestall barn built in 2012.
They’ve been making most of the cow-related decisions on the farm since they returned home to farm from Ridgetown College in 1999. Their father had been milking cows at the farm since 1957 and was more than ready to sell the cows.
“When we came home in ’99, it was a battle to get Dad to keep the cows,” says Tom during an interview in the barn office. “He had some health issues and he was getting older, and he didn’t really want to milk anymore. I remember sitting at the table with him, trying to decide if I was going to go to college or not, and I said I wouldn’t go if he was going to sell the cows. But he said I had to go, because he never went to college.
“We made a deal. I would come home on weekends and do the chores and they would do them during the week.
“When we got home in ’99, the last day of our exams is the last day they milked cows. That morning was the last one, they were done. They’ve hardly touched a cow since then.”
The Pettits are an interesting case as their father was older when he married, and their mother was a widow with two children from her first marriage. That meant that unlike most young farmers, where the parents are still heavily involved in the farm when the children come home from school, the elder Pettits — Murray, now 78 and Betty, now 79, were ready to move towards retirement.
“My wife’s dad is 61, and still heavily involved in their operation,” says Tom. “If you have someone that age involved, they are going to take some of the responsibility away from the kids, but you also have that mentor you can work with. For us, we dove right into operating the dairy side of things.”
“He was never really the cow guy,” Suzanne says of their father. That’s unlike his children who both liked dairy farming from a young age. Suzanne was making mating decisions for the cows when she was 10 years old.
They both liked cows, but that didn’t mean they got along as children.
You see, if their story is unique in some ways, it’s also absolutely ordinary in others.
“We didn’t like each other that much when we were kids,” says Tom.
“We fought a lot,” says Suzanne.
“We fought a lot until late teens, until we went away to college. Then that changed,” says Tom.
The brother and sister had the unique experience of attending college at the same time, despite being almost two years apart in age.
Suzanne took a year off school after high school. She had been destined for Western University in London, “for something I didn’t want to do.” After a year at home, she was certain that she wanted to farm.
“They (her parents) were kind of against that, so it was decided that I was going to Ridgetown too,” says Suzanne.
“Even that year you were home, things were a lot better between you and me,” says Tom. “A lot of it is just maturity and growing up. You see that a lot with brothers and sisters and brothers and brothers. They don’t get along growing up and once they hit 18 or 20 they realize that ‘hey, wait a minute, this is stupid.’”
“We were both headed in the same direction,” says Suzanne.
Now, 19 years later, Tom, 36 and Suzanne, 38, have together built one of the highest-producing herds in Elgin County, and they have already met some of their cow classification goals. They worked hard in the old high-labour tie-stall barn to pay off the farm they bought after returning home, and then built the modern, cow-friendly, labour-efficient barn that has dramatically improved their lifestyle. They have increased their per cow production by more than 25 per cent since they moved into the new barn.
Their father is still consulted on financial decisions, such as the new tractor purchased last spring, but day-to-day decision-making has all fallen to Suzanne and Tom.
They’ve established their individual roles, and they have a rapport that you can hear in the way they almost finish each other’s sentences.
“We generally keep things calm,” says Suzanne.
“… Or comical,” says Tom.
Suzanne: “We go with more laughing than yelling.”
Tom: “It’s better that way.”
Suzanne: “It works out better.”
Tom: “No more punching.”
Suzanne: “We got rid of that when we were growing up.”
Tom and Suzanne gradually developed separate roles on the farm, even though they say they never sat down to divide up the work.
Now, it’s one of their chief pieces of advice to other brothers and sisters.
“Find what you’re good at in the operation,” says Suzanne. “It’s good to have your own bit, an area that’s yours. You can still have discussions, but have your own bit that you are in charge of.”
On the Pettit farm, Suzanne manages the cows, does all the feeding, and maintains records. And while they discuss breeding decisions on cows, Suzanne will have the research done and the bull semen in stock in their storage tank ready to go.
Tom, meanwhile, is responsible for the equipment and the crops, and he does the day-to-day financial accounting as well.
Tom is also first in the barn in the morning and Suzanne does the late evening barn checks and last calf feeding so that Tom can spend time with his family. Tom lives off the farm with his wife Kris and daughters Maddie, 11 and Kadie, 9. Hours were longer and inflexible before the robot milked the cows.
“There’s no point in trying to do everything. I think that’s where most siblings get into trouble,” says Tom. “They both want to do the exact same thing and they don’t agree on it. And they fight. We don’t run into that issue.”
His family helps out on the farm when they can. Kris is a registered nurse and came from a farm, so she understands the work and the demands that it makes. Tom and Suzanne agree that it is important that Kris and Suzanne get along well.
So how are decisions made on the farm? It’s all about communication and discussion.
“We’ve never really had a disagreement about anything like that,” says Tom. “We just sit down and… when it comes to the cow thing, we’ve always been on the same page as far as the cows go. Do we need to get rid of this cow, or do we need to do something to this cow? If there’s something wrong, we’ll sit down and make a decision.”
On a smaller farm with large overhead in a new barn, the decisions need to be well researched. The new tractor that arrived in the spring had been discussed for four years.
“If we didn’t get along well, it would make everything more difficult. You need to make the right decision and work together on it. If you’re always butting heads, the right decision doesn’t usually get made,” says Tom, who warns that it wouldn’t work if one sibling was overly domineering, since resentment would build.
It’s also essential to work hard at succession planning, says Suzanne. Most brother-sister situations will involve parents and succession, she says.
“Succession planning and figuring out how to handle that is an important aspect to keeping the entirety of the family in balance or else it can get kind of messy,” she says.