Bean There: Love and Business

I was busily sewing a new dress for my first date in 12 years. (Yeah, I know, so sophisticated, a homemade dress.) Anyway, I was struck suddenly by a thought: what if this guy was Mr. Right? What if he wanted to move in with me?

I stopped sewing.

Gorman family farm Corey Coyle [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gorman family farm. (Photo by Corey Coyle, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Huh.

On the spot, I decided he would have to put a chunk of cash in an escrow account and sign an airtight prenup before he could move in. If we were still together after five years, we could take the money and either pay down the mortgage or blow it on a holiday.

I went on sewing.

For the romantics among you, he was decidedly not Mr. Right and has a snowball’s chance in a supernova of moving in with me anytime soon. For the rest of you, who are more curious about this juxtaposition of the romantic and prosaic, here is my reasoning.

 

For most couples, buying a home together is already a big decision. People often forget that marriage is not only an emotional contract but a business one as well. Prenuptial agreements are often viewed (wrongly) only as tools for rich people to ensure good behavior from potentially money-grabbing spouses. But in reality, few couples will undertake any business contract more significant than the purchase of the family home and if the marriage ends, either through death, divorce or misadventure, the division of the family assets is often as or even more painful than arranging custody of the children. This is an unhappy truth.

For farmers, that is more than doubly true. They not only live with their partners, they earn their living from the shared home and property as well. Even if it is True Love, which heaven knows is rare enough, anything might happen to dissolve the partnership in an untimely way — illness, death, remarriage with new children (step and otherwise), all are difficult enough without a squabble over the disposition of the family business which also happens to be the principal residence.

This sort of dilemma is not unique to farmers. A couple I know decided that the only way around the overheated Toronto housing market was to go in with a good friend on buying their own home. This was about 20 years ago now. The house they had their eye on was suitable for conversion into a duplex. I was visiting and present for the opening discussions, to which I listened with some interest.

“Wait a bit,” I interrupted, “What if Buddy (not his real name) here meets the love of his life and you can’t stand him or her? What are you going to do then?”

The discussion paused as they contemplated this possibility. The final agreement was not overly complicated but held contingency plans for the separation and disengagement of any of the three parties, including the established couple. (You romantic/nosy types will want to know that the couple are still together, expecting their first grandchild, and Buddy lived with them for about five years before being bought out at fair market value and moving on.)

Ryser family farm. Corey Coyle [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ryser family farm. (Photo by Corey Coyle, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thirty years ago, the situation was more clear cut for farmers, although that doesn’t mean it was good. Not at all. If a farmer couple separated in Ontario, for example, all assets went to the farmer. The male farmer. Not the other one, who was then known as the farmer’s wife. And because farms are often cash-strapped, that meant the women and children of such a divided family were even more vulnerable to poverty and want than was the norm at the time (the norm being bad enough, then as now).

All those days and nights of cooking, preserving, helping in the barns and fields, feeding orphan lambs and raising the young humans counted for nothing. The divorce laws were reluctantly changed (and inconsistently applied) but mostly, for the last 25 odd years, property has been split down the middle when an established marriage ends. Exceptions have been allowed when the marriage was of short duration and no material contribution to labor on the farm was made by the outgoing spouse. In those cases, the split involves only the family home and the acre it stands on, with one partner required to buy out the other.

But the even-steven split is not necessarily a great fix. Dividing the working assets of a farm often means neither half can generate enough income to earn a living for the new household. And that cash-strapped thing means it can be agonizingly difficult for one to buy the other out. Love is a many splendored thing, but farmers need to be a little cold in considering the future of the romance. Many farms formally incorporate in an attempt to manage their assets more fairly. It can be an expensive process, especially with all the land and capital assets, such as equipment quota and animals, needing to be transferred, sometimes one item at a time. It can seem like the corporate legal team required are the only sure winners

 

The challenges arise not only from divorce or death of a spouse. From very early in their careers, farmers have to think about their succession plans. Many older farmers dislike handing over the reins too soon to the younger set, which contributes to the young’uns getting fed up with being treated like kids and moving on to something, anything, other than farming.

There are exceptions, of course. Keddy’s strawberry plant nursery gave the youngster a field and a building or two to mess around with to keep him quiet. He turned them into a thriving sweet potato business that is now expanding into the rest of the farm, overshadowing the strawberries. They’re a nice family and Dad is as pleased as punch with the outcome. You can get those real Nova Scotia-grown sweet potatoes all over the Maritimes now. Check the tag and set those Georgia ones aside.

Many families section off an acre or two for the kids to build a home, or put up a trailer which passes for a starter home in the country, or maybe the granny suite for the old folks. It can work out well. Everyone gets some independence and privacy and there is help with either babysitting or senior care. The trouble comes when the younger set get up to what they call “innovation” and the older set call “wrecking a good thing.” Most of the dedicated farming financial institutions, like Farm Credit Canada, have extensive counselling to help the generations navigate these treacherous waters. But to get help, you first have to admit that you need it. Tough for an independent breed like farmers. The fishery has the same problem with handing down the licenses to the next generation. One fisherman I know was 84 and hadn’t done any significant work on the boat for years before he finally handed it all over to his son, then in his forties. That’s a long time to be treated like a deck hand.

Meier family farm. Corey Coyle [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Meier family farm. (Photo by Corey Coyle, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And what if the keen one, the one who really gets it, is not your own kid but his or her spouse? Or your stepchild? How do you treat every one of your children, birth or step, fairly without dividing the place into so many pieces it couldn’t support a rabbit who didn’t have a job in town? What if the keen one who married your indifferent offspring gets divorced? Whose side are you really going to be on? Farmers are often so invested in their land that it can be agonizing for them to see it all let go for lack of will. I know several young farmers who took over their operations from older couples who had children themselves but none that were interested. But I know a lot of farmers too, who tried to be fair to every one of their children and the one who stayed had to buy out the interest of all the others. Back to that cash-strapped thing. Should that one keen kid really jeopardize their own financial future for an arbitrary idea of fairness? Surely the one who loves and cares for the land deserves a better break than that.

Me, I bought two farms, so I can’t help with any ideas. That was already one-and-a-half too many. Good thing only two of the three kids have any interest at all, and the third has been promised the building lot of her choice on the farm if she ever wants a Cape Breton getaway. Any money left over from my life insurance (it expires when I’m 70) gets divided equally between the three of them. Best I could come up with. Not perfect.

Nor are the non-materialistic back-to-the-landers immune to these kinds of difficulties. Many of the younger generation build homes on parts of the original homestead too, even if they scorn the trailer home set. The same challenges of of land use and succession planning still apply. Even if you don’t think you need stuff, stuff still owns you, especially if you built it yourself. Even if you think no one else appreciated your Buckminster Fuller dome and two-story homemade composting toilet the way they should.

I’m all in favor of not getting too attached to things, but I am still glad for my illness this fall that goaded me and my children into mapping the important features of my farm and ongoing experiments. I may not be remembered in 100 years but my apple trees will still be there and now someone else knows their names. I’ll still wear that fancy dress I sewed too. Maybe next summer at the beach. I’ll be the one going for a swim and letting the kids do the work for a change.

Featured image: Berge family farm by Corey Coyle, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

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