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Retiring From The Farm With No Regrets

At 67, Martin Tappolet of Wilchingen, Switzerland is finally ready to retire. Twelve years ago he turned the family farm over to his son and took a full-time job in the industrial sector. Now it’s time to move on again. Letting go and moving on is something Tappolet’s good at.

In l999 his son Kai was 30 and at a crossroads. If he couldn’t take over the farm he would develop his second career as an agro-technician. Martin was 55 at the time. “I had the farm for 30 years,” Tappolet says. He was thankful someone wanted to continue the family business. They started the transition process and Tappolet looked for a job.

“When you’re young, you still have the energy,” Martin says, who had a good role model when it came to an early transfer. He himself was only 25 when his father rolled the farm over to him.

Even though he felt ready to pass the farm on, Tappolet admits it wasn’t all easy. He had enjoyed farming. He and his wife Deta agreed they would make a total break, unlike many Swiss farms where the dad remains a part of the operation. “At the beginning we were pretty scared,” Deta says. “We had many sleepless nights.”

It took awhile for him to find a job, and at first he wasn’t sure how it would work. “But somehow I started enjoying it,” he says now of his work for Pletscher &Co., a family owned company that fabricates and sells fences in wood and steel for private and industrial applications. Chuckling, he remembers being in kindergarten and telling people that when he grew up he was going to work in a factory. “They get a real wage,” the five year old Tappolet had said, “not like farmers who never make any money.”

The Tappolet farm was a good size by Swiss standards — about 80 acres and mostly in one piece. That’s something almost unheard of in this country where most fields are small and scattered. When he quit Tappolet was milking 22 cows, besides growing feed and the usual crops of corn, cereals, canola and sugar beets. “I had an easy farm,” he says. It was a good farm for a young man to take over.

Kai asked the provincial agriculture office to do a farm study that would give him an idea of what he could expect over the coming ten years. That gave him the needed confidence for such a big step.

The Tappolets employed a professional with experience in the agriculture field to give them advice in the legal and financial areas of the rollover. “He was very loyal and looked out for both parties,” Deta says. They took their time finding the right person — several were discounted because either Martin or Kai didn’t quite trust them. It still took them more than a year to find a full consensus for the transfer details.

The papers were finally signed at the end of 2000. Martin had begun working full time mid 1999 already. Having been away from the farm for eight years, Kai needed some time to work himself back into the business and started out as Martin’s employee. From January 2000, Kai managed the farm and Martin continued to help out with consulting services and work as needed for the next year or so.

When asked if it was hard to watch his son do things differently on the farm, Tappolet shakes his head. He lived alone with his three children for many years after separating from his first wife. A liberal father, he gave the kids room to make their own decisions and feels that prepared the ground for him to be able to let go later.

Martin and Deta continued to live on the farm after the rollover, but increasing tension in the relationship with the young farmers signalled a change. They bought a house in nearby Wilchingen.

It was a good move for Martin and Deta, greatly improving their relationship. They enjoy the freedom of their own place, even though they had the legal right to remain on the farm, as is the standard in Swiss farm transfer law.

“When he’s confronted with facts, he always tries to make the best of things,” Deta says of Martin as they discuss the difficult period after they left the farm. After an initial break, they now go back for birthday parties, and Martin continues to help with harvest.

At Pletscher &Co., Tappolet began as the “jack of all trades.” Now he’s a dependable and well-liked employee with his specialized set of skills. As a proud independent farmer, being valued is important to him. He always enjoyed working with wood, and likes being close to nature. The factory is right beside a stream at the edge of the forest.

Tappolet finds that many employers like to hire older farmers. Former business owners, these farmers know how to plan and think ahead. They’re usually interested in the whole business and work hard.

When asked if he misses farming, Tappolet doesn’t hesitate. “No!” he says. “What I found harder all the time, as a farmer, were the increasingly tight regulations.” Tappolet began using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods before they were regulated and paid for under the Swiss subsidy system, but he still found the rules frustrating. He’s glad he doesn’t have to deal with those things anymore.

Not being tied to milking times is also a bonus. He loves to ski, and this year Deta bought him a season’s pass to his favourite ski resort which he is making avid use of. He especially enjoys going skiing with family members.

Tappolet might not miss operating a farm himself, but he is looking forward to spending more time helping his son-in-law who runs a larger farm. There’s always some building going on there, which is his specialty. Kai too has asked him about his plans after retirement. So he won’t be bored.

“I’m still a farmer,” he says. He’s especially proud of that as the farm celebrates 100 years of Tappolets this year.

MarianneStammlivesatWestlock,Alta., butwrotethisarticlewhilevisitingfamilyin Switzerland.Shecanbereachedat [email protected]

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