Five cows (Left to right: Tammy Fay, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, Fred) grazing in a field, Cameron, Ontario, Canada

Succession Planning: Reframing a Crisis as an Opportunity

By treating succession planning as an opportunity rather than a crisis, we can leverage what communities are already doing across Canada for a more targeted, adaptive, and predictable policy approach to food systems.

By Claire Perttula & Johanna Wilkes, Balsillie School of International Affairs

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) broadly defines succession planning as: 

“A continuous process involving the advanced planning for, and implementation of strategies to, transfer the labour, knowledge, skills, management control, decision-making and ownership of the farm business to the next generation (within family or not) based upon the personal, family and business goals and objectives.”

Succession plans are never easy—they involve facing questions of mortality, the legacy of a farm, the division of assets, and complex legal and personal arrangements. With more children leaving the farm, many farmers are left searching for successors. According to recent figures, only 16,200 of Canada’s 190,000+ farms—or less than 10 percent—have succession plans. Even more concerning, Canada has six times more farmers over the age of 55 (54.5%) than under 35 (9%). 

As debt-heavy farmers edge towards retirement, their assets then become a major lever for retirement and inheritance for their families. New farmers do not typically have access to the assets or capital needed by the retiring generation, leaving all farmers without solutions. Informational support only helps if you have the resources to implement the advice. When a larger percentage of farm transfers went from one generation to the next, this resource gap was not a central public policy consideration. Now, public policy could play an active role in bridging this divide.

Using succession plans as a lens for examining the challenges and opportunities of our modern farming landscape brings out three potential areas of focus. By considering protection, transition, and extension as important elements in good farm succession planning, it becomes clear that well-aligned and effective public policy is vital to robust and sustainable food systems. 

Farmland Protection

Protecting Canada’s farmland is a precursor to a sustainable food system—to pass on or acquire land for growing, the land must be protected from competing use. Both the Canadian Senate Report and the publication Farmland at Risk, note the importance of protecting Canada’s farmlands. Farmland, or land-use planning more generally, falls under the jurisdiction of the province and is interpreted and implemented by more localized forms of government, such as municipalities. While the province provides land use planning frameworks, such as the Provincial Policy Statement or the Ontario Greenbelt, local sites of governance are where most land-use planning tension takes place. Densely populated regions, like the Greater Toronto Area, are situated on some of the province’s most fertile farmlands. While we can not rewind and uproot cities, we can be much more mindful and unwavering about the principles of restricted development. Growing up-rather-than-out is an essential element of farmland preservation. Place-based initiatives, like Hold the Line in Waterloo, Ontario, show the local resistance to urban sprawl into farmlands by encouraging the continued use of firm urban boundaries. In addition to protection, preservation and access to land also hinge on having the right public policy tool in place. 

Farmland Transition

Public policy is largely silent in recognizing the urgent need for new models to support emerging growers and the complex arrangements of non-family transitions. Non-family transfers are becoming more common, though finding a non-family member to take over a farm business and property can be challenging. The Young Agrarians released a succession planning toolkit in 2020 to guide current farmers and their potential successors through the transition process. The toolkit provides step-by-step prompts for financial and business planning, transition implementation, and a variety of other topics to be covered in the process. The National Farmers Union – Ontario (NFU-O) ran a series of landlinking workshops in early 2020. At these workshops, those with land and those seeking land came together to find arrangements that would facilitate land access to new farmers under conditions agreed to with landowners. The goal of these workshops and the resulting landlinking network is to ease the start of the succession process for those wanting to leave farming, protect and preserve land for farming, and to provide as much varied support as new entrants may need. Once the connection has been made, the succession planning process can fully unfold. Enhanced young farmer financing programs, farmland easements, and land trusts can also provide pathways to viable ownership and long-term land tenure to new entrants and young farmers. 

Extension

As mentioned in the OMAFRA succession definition, the transfer of skills and knowledge is essential to successful succession planning. Extension services can be thought of as including four broad categories: “knowledge and skills, technical advice and information, farmers’ organization, and motivation and self-confidence”. Given the ongoing limited availability and narrow focus of government extension services in Canada, several institutions have developed independent apprenticeship and (re)training programs. Varying in length and style, entering and existing farmers can find flexible ways to meet their education goals. For example, Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) has three campus farms where students can test their skills and ideas during their studies and after graduation. KPU also prioritizes developing Indigenous skills and foodways within their program to empower the next generation. In an alternative setting, Everdale Farm and Training Centre “specialize[s] in training new farmers and helping established farmers to improve their farm plans”, also offering special introductory classes to public school students. Farmers of any age and experience can find targeted support in all aspects of farm business development and farming practices, including finances and data management, sector regulations, risk management, record keeping, and production planning. Enhancing and investing in a diverse, place-based approach to extension services can further increase the likelihood that existing farmers can find a qualified successor.

Conclusion

These strategies for succession planning, by looking beyond family ties, bring new voices and entrants into Canada’s farming landscape. While large farms continue to access well-established programming, market conditions and government programs have not historically focused on regional or community needs. Succession planning, if done through an inclusive process, could shift our food system interventions from symptom-based programs to structural change. Formally entrenching farmland protection, farmland transition, and extension into central public policy frameworks—such as the Food Policy for Canada and Canadian Agricultural Partnership—would give new entrants the tools they need to succeed and help existing farmers retire confidently, turning succession from a crisis to an opportunity. 

About the Authors

Claire Perttula is a recent graduate of the Master’s of International Public Policy at the Balsillie School of International Affairs where she focused on food sovereignty, environmental sustainability, and international trade. As an integral part of the Building Back Better team, Claire tracked the federal government’s evolving investment priorities by comparing federal mandate letters and mapping them on to the Building Back Better Task Force’s key considerations. She also worked with Johanna to support the creation of the sustainable food systems policy notes. Claire is starting her PhD in the Fall, building off of the mandate letter work and forthcoming regional food systems note to research the role of education and educational investment in food systems transformation.

Johanna Wilkes is a PhD candidate in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs where she is completing dissertation research on pathways of change within and between different scales of food governance. In addition to her dissertation research, Johanna led the development of the sustainable food systems policy notes for the Building Back Better Task Force and in conjunction with the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies. As part of her work, Johanna coordinated contributions between several researchers across academic institutions to create policy notes that are relevant, in-depth, and demonstrate the most up-to-date approaches.