Growing the family farm in the face of tragedy

Farmers will hear much talk of the need for resilience in the years ahead. From weather and markets, to trade, to family and managing day-to-day operations, farmers need to be able to cope with the challenges and setbacks that are routinely part of production agriculture.

No one personifies resilience more than Springfield, PEI, dairy farmer Brenda Howard. Last month at the Farm Business Management Agricultural Excellence Conference she shared the story of how strength of will, determination, and business savvy helped her hang on to the family farm in the face of tragedy.

Howard, a school teacher by training, took over Howardvale Holsteins in 2002 after the tragic death of her husband. She was left to manage a recently expanded dairy operation — and the debt that goes with it — all while raising three teenage sons, and working full time as a teacher. She also had no farming experience.

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Howard shares how she chose to rise above the crisis rather than being destroyed by it. With help from an extensive advisory team, beginning with three neighbouring farmers, she carried on — determined to see her sons learn the skills needed to run the operation and eventually take it over.

Since 2002, the farm has tripled the size of its facilities, grown its quota holdings to 325 kgs, and increased its land base to 900 acres including rented land. Along the way, Howard has summoned the strength to continue despite a serious car accident that put her off work for two years, losing a second husband and the death of one of her sons in a 2015 car accident.

But through it all, Howard is looking forward. She intends to complete the farm’s succession plan by 2022, and discusses how she’s built resilience into the farm operation. Her tips include: a good advisory team, fine-tuning roles and responsibilities, effective coaching and mentoring, a strong emphasis on human relations, learning to delegate and manage, and emphasizing both short-term and long-term goals.

Click here for more Agricultural Excellence Conference coverage.

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