Mark Foster and his sister Melinda Foster-Marshall never thought they’d be farming together. They had different personalities and routes through high school, but they have created roles and responsibilities and processes that are allowing their individual strengths to create a successful farming business.
Melinda has a degree in geological sciences from Queen’s University and was a self-described “book nerd” in high school. She manages the dairy operation. Mark came home to farm soon after high school after spending some time working in construction, and he thrives by connecting with customers as the manager of their cropping and DeKalb seed dealership businesses.
The Fosters and their parents Jim and Lynda are each one-third shareholders in Jockbrae Farms where the family milks about 120 cows and cultivates about 1,600 acres near Carleton Place, Ont.
Country Guide interviewed the Fosters in our April 2013 issue, and we returned this winter to catch up with Melinda and Mark on how it was going working together as brother and sister. Mostly, the extra years have only reinforced their initial insights, especially about the importance of giving each individual an area to be in charge of, and the over-arching need to create a structure that ensures good communication.
For the Fosters, that structure provides a foundation for the farm and the way it is farmed. “Communication is most definitely a challenge,” says Mark. “Melinda and I have daily phone conversations about that day’s events and what’s to come the next. Keeping in constant communication is key to success.”
Importantly, regular communication helps build transparency among the farm owners.
The shareholders also have regular meetings, complete with motions and minutes, so that everyone knows who is responsible for what and there is accountability for those actions.
“Bigger decisions are made with the four business partners discussing everything together. Every opinion is important and heard. All four of us stand behind a decision once it’s taken,” says Mark.
“Usually our disagreeing happens in our meetings. If we don’t agree, we ask questions,” says Melinda. “We always leave our meetings from a common ground.”
Day-to-day decisions are entrusted to the person in charge of each operation.
“It’s incredibly important for any partners, brothers and sisters or whatever, that they have their own defined roles, so day-to-day decision making can happen without having to discuss every single thing,” she says.
It’s also important so they can maintain their passion for the farm. “I discovered a love for the business at an early age, watching my mom and dad farm,” Mark says. “I knew I wanted to be a part of it all.”
Melinda, on the other hand, was not destined for a farming career. She says she had an affinity for agriculture having grown up on the farm, but she was headed for a career in the oil sector, likely in Western Canada. Then, during the summer before her last year of university, the family bought a second dairy farm, a nearby ongoing dairy operation.
Their business plan was built upon transferring 20 kgs of quota from the home farm to the purchased farm and selling off the remaining home farm quota to help support the purchase. Their plans quickly changed in the midst of closing the deal when Dairy Farmers of Ontario made a policy change disallowing quota mergers. For the Fosters this would necessitate milking in both facilities, managing two herds and doubling their land base. There was a lot to do during this transition period, so Melinda came home for the summer and starting making more management decisions.
She found she was challenged and excited by the level of decision-making that was needed on the farm.
“I told Dad in high school that if farming was an intellectual career, I think I would have enjoyed it,” she says. “Since then, I’ve apologized and said, ‘Sorry, Dad. I use all my faculties every day in managing this.’”
After they built up enough quota at the other farm they consolidated the cows, moving the purebred herd from home into the newer facilities of the second dairy they had purchased. It was a challenging time for the business, but the adversity and complexity of managing two dairies, doubling land base and starting a DeKalb dealership has served them well.Melinda, 28, now lives at that farm with her daughter and husband Allen Marshall, while her parents and Mark have homes at the family’s original farm. Mark, 30, is married to Kaitlyn and they have three children.
Mark handles the rapidly growing DeKalb dealership, which now requires at least one full-time person. He’s helped out by his wife who also does the books for the farm, along with their mother. Their mother, Lynda, is the “controller,” who helps keeps the younger generation grounded. Their father Jim, is now raising the heifers and is a “gopher” who helps out where it is needed, whether running for parts, driving a grain buggy or helping deliver a calf. Mark and Melinda have two older siblings who are about 40 and who both work off the farm.
This year they installed Lely robots to milk the cows, something Melinda says they would “do again in a heartbeat and should have done years ago.”
It was a big business decision, and when one of the partners has a significant proposal they have to bring a business plan to a meeting of the partners for discussion and approval. As the business has tripled in size in the past six years, they have had to create stronger accounting systems, with better expense itemization. That’s meant they have the ability to quickly sort out precise expenses on which to build business cases, which leads to better informed decision making.
Managing the resources needed to handle the growing DeKalb dealership has also been challenging. Their full-time employee and operations manager Scott Sergeant also helps with the dealership, as well as taking on more crops responsibilities.
Mark has driven growth of the DeKalb dealership. “He’s the type of individual everybody likes and looks up to. He’s a good salesperson and supports his product,” says Melinda. “But, we would not be where we are today without the support of our community, neighbours and employees.”
Melinda believes there are advantages to being a brother and sister farming together.
“I think it is easier for us to maintain our brother and sister first relationship than it would be for two brothers, because two brothers, from a stereotypical standpoint, might be harder-headed and might not be able to come to the same playing field. It requires one of two partners to back down and empathize with the other in order to get things moving.”
It took a while for them to recognize each other’s decision-making styles, but they have come to have confidence and trust that they each have the best interests of the business at the core of their decisions.
“It’s amazing where life takes you,” says Melinda. “But I’m very happy that I am able to farm with my brother, and it’s an honour to be able to work and learn from our parents on a daily basis.”
“I am really glad it has worked out,” says Mark. “We have to respect that we are each individuals, with goals and aspirations, and realize we need to work for the good of the farm.”