Tom and Margaret Towers were looking to downsize their cattle operation when they went on Kijiji in search of grass-finished beef to add to their reduced herd.
Instead, they found Blake and Angela Hall, a young couple in need of a long-term solution to their land troubles.
Together, the couples started the Tamara Ranch Project — a bit of an unorthodox approach to succession planning that’s making life easier for both couples.
“Even though you don’t like to think it, you get to a certain age that you can’t do as much as you used to be able to,” said Margaret Towers, who farms with her husband just south of Red Deer. Their son lives in Vancouver and isn’t interested in farming, but the couple didn’t want to leave the ranch nor sell land homesteaded by Tom’s great-grandfather in 1894.
“We’ve watched land being sold around, and it just becomes part of another big operation,” said Tom. “We didn’t really want that to happen.”
The Halls also faced a dilemma.
“Land prices are well beyond the means of production, and a younger-generation farmer can’t really buy in,” said Blake Hall. “We had to get unconventional.”
The couple is confident they can establish their 220-head grass-finished beef operation, Prairie Gold Pastured Meats, without owning land. But in their first six years, they moved farms four times — an “exhausting and expensive and stressful” process.
“We’re pretty happy to have some stable land tenure, which has been our biggest issue up until two years ago with our arrival here,” said Hall.
His brother-in-law, Mike Kozlowski, was facing the same challenge with his community-supported agriculture vegetable farm, Steel Pony Farm — moving three times in five years. So he, too, was brought into the fold.
“To get into agriculture when land prices are $10,000-plus an acre is really challenging,” said Kozlowski. “If you’re looking at how you can help and enable and support young people trying to get into this type of endeavour, it’s that land security that really, really matters.
“This relationship with Tom and Margaret has been really awesome, because for the last two years, I’ve felt really secure.”
Although land transfer isn’t an issue, this type of arrangement still calls for succession planning.
Early into their partnership, the group hired consultant Kelly Sidoryk to help them develop a plan for working with each other.
“It’s easy to do a financial plan on paper; it’s easy to go out and build fences,” said Sidoryk. “The very hardest work we’ll ever do is the people part of things.”
Over the course of a weekend, Sidoryk helped them set some goals and create a vision for the operation by posing some key questions.
“In a perfect world, how do we want things to be in five years? And if this is what we’re envisioning for the operation, what do we need to start doing this year? What are our priorities that are taking us toward that? Those are the things you need to talk about,” said Sidoryk.
Making those sorts of things clear from the outset is critical, said Hall.
“Nobody’s a mindreader. If you have it clear in your mind what you want on your farm, you need to vocalize that to the next generation and then they can manage it accordingly.”
On same page
That comes down to communication, added Hall.
“Communication is so critical — having the capacity to bring up the smallest grievance so that those things don’t grow,” he said.
“If I’m not feeling right about something and would typically just choke it down, I try to make the effort to bring it up. It’s put out a lot of fires when they’re small.”
Every Monday, the Halls and the Towers meet over coffee so Blake can bring everyone up to speed on what’s happening on the farm. Once a month, they talk about the operation’s larger goals, and every year, everyone signs a memorandum of agreement for each operation that outlines responsibilities and commitments.
That allows the group to clear up any miscommunication quickly.
“You might have a five-minute conversation and everyone walks away thinking something different. We’ve had to work through a few challenges on that front,” said Hall.
“That’s where the vision comes in. If you know you’re working toward a common goal, when you hit those roadblocks you can get around them and get back on track.”
Everyone has had to adapt, said Kozlowski.
“There’s setbacks where trust is broken by one group or another, and you feel like it’s hard to get through, but overall, I think we’re on an increasing curve of trust,” he said.
“Tom and Margaret have been great about letting us know when their expectations are different than what is happening.”
A commitment to building trust is the “big thing,” said Sidoryk.
“Even though they’re getting together at the meetings to talk about production and how-to, there’s still the commitment to making sure there’s trust,” she said. “We need to create an environment where people feel comfortable to share.”
Passion is key
It’s a whole new ball game for the Towers.
“When you’ve made basically all the decisions for yourself, and then you have another generation coming along that has a lot different ideas, letting go of control is a big issue,” said Margaret. “But if you can’t let go of that, it’s not going to work.”
“If we’d have come here and been really tied down, with Tom always looking over my shoulder, it probably would have discouraged me,” he said. “There needs to be accountability and monitoring of course, but that younger person needs the autonomy to function and feel empowered.”
That means the older generation can’t be “set in your ways,” Margaret added.
“Sometimes you have to shift your thinking big time.”
The Tamara Ranch Project remains just that — a project.
The group “doesn’t have all the answers,” but everyone shares a deep passion for the land and ranching, said Margaret.
“It is important that you find the right people and that you share the same vision,” she said.
“Blake and Mike are the kind of people I would be proud to call my sons and Ang my daughter-in-law. You have to find those kinds of people to work with.”