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How To Exit Farming On A High Note

Many people envy our lifestyle. To others, it must seem free and exotic. I suppose it is, as we do spend half the year overseas in Europe and Africa. Just over five years ago we were still full-time grain farmers, like most of our neighbours. We were caught up in the cycle of seeding and harvest, the business of producing and selling. Then we made the choice to change.

Now Robert and I spend several months of every year in Zambia with agricultural development work, adding a month or two in Switzerland with our family there. The rest of the year we live on our farm in Westlock, Alta. Robert helps our neighbours in the field and shop. I help a farmer harvest and I write farming articles, like this one.

It’s a pretty good life. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took courage to overcome the fears of change. We needed the help of friends and professionals.

GETTING OUT OF FARMING

The fall of 2005 was a difficult one — wet and long. Grain prices were plummeting and inputs rising dramatically. Robert had always talked of quitting when he turned 60, another three years. Now he was asking, “Why wait?” Indeed, it looked like we could be putting our equity at risk in the next couple years. Our farm consultant agreed it looked like a good time to exit, if that was the plan.

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe the fear and anxiety I read out of my journals. Even though it was a free decision, it was not an easy one. There were financial fears: Did we have enough equity and cash flow to be able to live without farming? And then, the bigger question: What would we do? What could we do?

Countless nights I lay awake, the immensity of the decision we were making weighing like a tonne of wheat on my chest. The decision to quit would be a final one.

Our accountant helped us with the financial and management issues. Together we worked through the questions: How much do we need to live on, now and later? What will our financial situation be if we quit now? What is our tax situation and what do we need to do to make the smoothest transition? Should we rent out or sell the farm (that was never a question for us. We still believe land is best investment)?

PLAN AND PLAN EARLY

If you are serious about quitting, it is very important to involve your accountant as early as possible. The sooner they know what your plans are, the better they can help you. There will almost surely be some big tax issues coming up. The longer you have been farming, the more important this will be.

Another big question for us was reinvestment. Once we sell the grain and machinery inventory, what do we do with that money? Again, it is vital to enlist the help of friends and professionals who have experience in these areas. We’d worked hard for this money; we wanted to put it to best possible use.

The answers to the financial questions helped direct the next step: what will we do? We were fortunate enough to be more or less financially independent. Between land rent and investments most of our needs are taken care of. Our contract wages pay for our trips to Zambia.

Our farm consultant gave us a questionnaire to fill out. In it, we listed our goals for the next year, five years, ten years for our personal, family, business and career life. The answers didn’t come right away. Some took months, maybe years to formulate, and then the answers changed. But the exercise helped to give us direction and clarification of what we needed and wanted to do.

A NEW WAY OF FARMING

We used A.W. Fraser’s consultants ( www.awfraser.com) for career counseling. It cost a bit of money, but it’s sort of like buying fertilizer or chemicals. You want your seed to grow to the best of its ability. They helped us see where our strengths lay, and also our weaknesses, and where that could take us.

It took awhile to find where we belonged. I struggled much more than Robert (probably because I was younger). That first winter we purposely visited several friends and acquaintances that had travelled this road before us. None of them regretted their decision to leave the farm. Each one was living life differently. One couple spent many years working at a Bible College, another bought a small farm in the mountains near their children, another began the first of several stints of two-year contracts with development work overseas. Each was an encouragement to us to move ahead.

A year before we quit, we’d spent a month in Zambia on a mission station helping to put in the irrigation to a banana plantation. We went back the following winter for another month. Those first two trips began what is now an annual three months spent consulting mostly with small scale farmers to help them improve crop production. Besides being a wonderful place to spend the winter, it is immensely gratifying to be able to use our knowledge and skills to improve the lives of people less fortunate than we are.

Our trips to Zambia are also what started my writing career. First it was weekly reports written to our local newspaper to share our experiences. From there it became a weekly column (now a blog) withThe Western Producer on-line. Then I started writing articles forGrainewsand other farm papers and magazines.

Someone asked Robert, “Don’t you miss farming?” It was Thanksgiving and he’d just finished the combining season with our neighbour. “I’m still farming,” he answered. “I just got off the combine.”

We are still farming. It’s just in a different way.

MarianneStammwritesfromJarvie,Alta.,butis currentlyinAfrica,farminginadifferentway

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