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David and Tyler Coburn – Passing on the Family Farm

September 28, 2020

What are the best practices to ensure a successful transition from one generation to the next on a family farm?

Coburn Farms has been in operation for more than 200 years, and like many family-owned farms, they are facing a transitional phase from one generation to the next. Father and son duo David and Tyler Coburn join us to talk about how they have approached farm succession planning and to share some lessons for both the older generations passing on their businesses and the younger generations beginning to manage those operations.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with David and Tyler Coburn hosted by Brian Lawless. Click below to hear the full audio.


Brian:             Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty.


                        Currently, family-owned businesses make up 80% of all U.S. and Canadian companies. Family-owned businesses make up an even higher percentage of all companies across agriculture and across all companies globally. That means most companies face this one problem: How do you successfully transition your business from one generation to the next?


                        Today, we have an exciting episode of the Ag Future podcast. I'm Brian Lawless, North American brand manager at Alltech, and I'm joined by David and Tyler Coburn of Coburn Farms. Coburn Farms, from New Brunswick, Canada, has successfully been in operation as a family farm for over six generations in 200 years, but now, they're in the middle of a transition from the sixth to the seventh generation. So, the question is: Will Coburn Farms successfully make it through the seventh generation? What succession plans does Coburn Farms have in place? What secrets to successful generational business transitions can we learn from Coburn Farms? David and Tyler, welcome to the Ag Future podcast.


David:             Thank you for having us.


Tyler:              Yeah, thank you.


Brian:             Now, before we dive into the challenges and lessons of generational businesses, which we'll get to, you built a really impressive business, so I believe it's important that we, as listeners, understand exactly what's at stake here. Now, David, you've managed Coburn Farms during its sixth generation of business. And within the last couple of years, you've been transitioning the business to its seventh generation, to your sons, Tyler and Glen. We have Tyler with us today. David, can you tell us a bit of the history of Coburn Farms and what the operation looks like today?


David:             Coburn Farms was established in 1806. I currently live in the original household. The house was built back in 1806. It was your typical mixed-commodity farm, having a little bit of everything. We started to specialize back in the 1860s. My great-grandfather specialized in potatoes. At one point in time, he was growing 30 acres of potatoes, which is not very much by today's scale, but if you think about it, he ploughed with one furrow plough, and he would have walked 300 miles.


                        He planted our first apple orchard in 1875. We still have one of the original trees still producing here on the farm. On his deathbed, he told my father, "You look after the orchard and it'll look after you." That was very true here in Eastern Canada. In the early 1900s, the apple farmers were some of the more successful farmers out there.


That brought us up into the 1950s. My father had a small dairy herd, as well as the orchard, and he started to move into chickens. Originally, they were dual-purpose, meat and eggs. Then he went into commercial egg production back 53 years ago, in 1967, with another barn following in 1970. I came back to the farm almost 40 years ago, in 1981. In ’86, we built a new lay barn, bringing both flocks into one barn, and we managed 25,000 birds for the next 30 years.


                        We moved into composting. I'll talk a bit more about that a little later, composting our farm waste. We have downsized our apple orchard; we went from 100 acres down to 10. We run a processing orchard and, with that, turning the apples into apple cider and apple syrups. As I mentioned, we went into composting. The compost is used on the farm primarily in the orchard or sold off to (other) farms. In 1995, we built our own feed mill, started manufacturing our feed and just continued to specialize that way. It's been an exciting, exciting ride.


Brian:             Absolutely. It sounds like, from apples to a feed mill, doing stuff in the layer industry, a lot of exciting things. Tyler, from your perspective, when you look at what your dad's built, how does Coburn Farms continue to look to the future in order to make the changes necessary to be successful?


Tyler:              Well, you've always had to be on the leading edge. In 2018 — or, I should say, in 2017, we started plans for constructing our new layer barn. I had to do career placement through Dalhousie's Faculty of Agriculture in Nova Scotia, and I did it with a broiler-breeder company, Atlantic Poultry. They had a lot of free-run housing on their broiler-breeders, and I got to look at pretty well every aspect of the free-run barns.


                        I knew at that point (that) I did not want to go that route, so I looked at alternatives. We went with enriched housing and a new layer barn. We started construction in May of 2018. We put in tunnel ventilation along with our sidewall ventilation that we use as our minimum, but the tunnel — our days are getting hotter here in New Brunswick in the summers, so it'll keep the birds about two degrees cooler inside and outside, (with an) air speed of 365 feet per minute. With these enriched housing units, they have scratchpads, nest boxes, nail files, four inches of feed space per bird. We did go with in-system lighting, so there's equal light on each tier and they are in the red. So, layers actually see — their spectrum of light is in the red, and so it actually keeps the birds quite calmer. Ninety percent of the birds actually lay in the nest boxes. Our group size in each unit are about 36 birds.


Brian:             I guess I've read specifically that you guys have this concept called “chicken condos.” Now, I'm from Lexington, Kentucky, where the University of Kentucky is. We have built upgraded student housing; it's kind of called student condos, apartment-style living. Is this the kind of concept that you guys are bringing to chickens? Maybe explain that, because I think you were just touching on it. Tell me about chicken condos. What are they?


Tyler:              It's just a concept to have bigger groups of birds together. There has been research done that anywhere between — roughly 20 birds together, up to about 75, is what you typically see in these units. They have all these amenities for them to display their natural attributes to the birds. The key is having happy, healthy birds to produce high-quality, Grade-A Canadian eggs.


Brian:             That makes sense. I want to ask both David and Tyler this question. Your family has been in business for six, going on seven, generations. If you had to sum it up, what's the secret sauce of Coburn Farms? What is the strategic advantage or part of the culture that's been keeping it successful for so long?


David:             I guess we've been always willing to look and try new things. I have a farm museum here on the farm that we put together on our bicentennial a number of years ago. I mentioned the potatoes, the beginning of the apples that brought — my grandfather, when he was young, he brought in bees on the farm. In the early 1920s, we got into fox farming, and he did that for a number of years while it was viable, until the Depression hit. We tried different things. My father was growing strawberries in the 1960s. We built a farm market and we ran that for 20 years. It was a very successful addition to our farm.


                        For me, when I was 14 years old, I ended up spreading manure. The manure spreader broke and I had to shovel semi-liquid manure out of a manure spreader one afternoon. I said to myself then, "There's got to be a better way of doing this." In 1990, 30 years ago, I was introduced to Alltech's De-Odorase product. We put that into our feed, and I'm proud to say it's been there ever since, but it dried the manure out to the point where I was going to have to buy a new manure spreader to spread it. I said, “This is worth composting.” That's what led us in to building the first in-vessel composting facility in Atlantic Canada.


                        We'd be willing to step out and try things. I researched that one for two years, and it got to the point where you're either going to build it or stop talking about it. We did that with our apple cider here a few years ago. We introduced apple syrups. We now have three different kinds of apple syrups, and we're starting to build that market up. So, like I said, you've got to be willing to try new things and give them up if they don't work, try and make them grow and live their time. Twenty years is time on some of these niche markets, so you have to be aware of that.


Brian:             Tyler, anything to add to that? The list I had running was a museum, bees, potatoes, fox farming, strawberries, farmers' market, manure, using De-Odorase, an Alltech product, composting and apple syrup. Yeah, the spirit of trying new things certainly seems alive at Coburn Farms. Anything that you would add to what your dad just said?


Tyler:              My brother is actually, he's got five acres of pumpkins and squash, which — we're very fortunate this year. The two farms around us that actually grow pumpkins, they didn't have a crop. So, in hindsight, we should have planted more than five acres, because we could have sold it all. The other thing is we have a small beef herd here as well. It's just land that's not being utilized. We live on a ridge. We live on a side hill. If you’ve got the land, you might as well do it.


                        The other thing I'd like to add (is that) we don't have land masses like they do in Western Canada or the Northwest United States. That's one of the reasons we had to diversify. We couldn't keep our eggs all in one basket. We had to keep trying new things because one year, one thing could pay for the other, and other years, (it would) not. Sustainability is key.


Brian:             Exactly. Sustainability is key. I'd like to maybe pivot the conversation and then really just talk more on just how to successfully transition a business between generations. I guess I want to start with you, Tyler. Tyler, if I understand correct, you have a brother and a sister. Some people grow up and they know right from the time they're born what they want to do with their lives. But for you, did you always want to take over the business? Were there any points that you thought about pursuing something else? What about your siblings?


Tyler:              At four years old, I knew I actually wanted to farm. I'd start my day off just like any kid, eating breakfast, and then I'd go to the office here on the farm and find out where my father was or the hired help who were working then; I'd go follow them around. I think I was helping at the time, but you're just a kid, so it's hard to say. You're more in the way, probably. But I knew from a very young age that I wanted to go to agricultural college and follow in my father's footsteps. No, there wasn't really ever a point that I said to myself that I didn't want to farm. I always knew I wanted to.


                        I do have a brother and sister, like you just touched on. My sister always knew she wanted to be a nurse. I'm not sure whether she just liked helping people (or what). My grandmother, my father's mother, she was a nurse back in the late ’40s, early ’50s, so I think she takes pride and joy in following in our grandmother's footsteps. You're right, I am lucky enough to farm with my brother, Glen. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, and luckily, ours actually work together quite well. He's more hands-on; I prefer a lot of the business aspects of running the farm. It just goes hand in hand. We are lucky enough that we have a father who is willing to transition, make it work and not necessarily make us buy the farm right out from underneath him, because then you'd be spending the rest of your life trying to pay that debt off and not trying to prosper and grow the operation.


Brian:             Absolutely. David, I'd like to go right into that then. How did you go about preparing Tyler and Glen to take on the business? For all of our listeners, what are some of the lessons you'd want to pass on to any farmer who's preparing to pass on their operation?


David:             The best I could do is follow the example that my father did for me. He actually incorporated our farm back in 1974 with the sole purpose of transitioning that to the next generation. He gave out shares to my two brothers and myself at the time to introduce us to the farm. We eventually bought him out a few years later.


                        Glen and Tyler, when they graduated from agricultural college, I gave them each 20% of the ownership of the farm. You've got to be an owner in order to be part of it, so we've done that. Now, we're starting discussions on what we're going to do with the other 60% over the next few years, but they're working for themselves.


As I said, I farmed with my two brothers. Circumstances happened over the years and I ended up buying both of them out. It was the goal that I want my brothers to talk to, and we've been successful for that. I actually have one of them, he's come back, and he works for us part-time. That's the definition of a family farm. I've watched some farms here in my community where the grandfather was almost a dictator. He held tight to the ownership and the purse strings and never let go. His children and grandchildren weren't prepared to run the farm, and those farms have disappeared.


                        The other big thing that's helped us to last for generations (is that) we go to a farmers' market. My father started taking me when I was nine, and so that's what I did with our kids, with the three kids. When they turned nine years old, I introduced them to the market. (There were) a couple of rules: number one, there were no calculators. You had to learn math and people skills. You've got to walk up to a customer. You've got to entice them into buying and then make their correct change. That gives you a good, young perspective, whether you farm or not. Those are lessons that are going to carry you well. That really helped in the development of the kids.


Brian:             I think you've touched on a lot of really good points there. In between that, it seems like you've really emphasized open communication, with the whole concept of having shares of the farm, discussing what percentages people own. It also seems like you've resisted the urge within your family for the older folks, maybe the grandfathers of the operation, to act as a dictator. I'll circle back to that in a minute. I do think introducing the kids early to the farmers' market without calculators and, we'll say, without cellphones, in this moment where you had to do both math and people skills and learn the sales side, is really intriguing. I think it's really important to know.


                        To circle back to the comment on dictators, this transition from generation to generation — how do you think you've done personally, David, of now, where at one point, you were maybe the head person in charge, and now you've transitioned to more of a guidance role or are in the process of this transition?


David:             It's not always easy. Sometimes you’ve just got to walk away. We're all human. We all make mistakes. The best lessons I've learned in life have been by the mistakes I've made. You've got to give them the rope to make their own decisions. Heart, that is one thing, and I make this very clear to the boys. I inherited this from my father. He had it, and he called it “the veto power.” Sometimes he did have the final say. The boys know that. I don't exercise it very often, but they listen when it happens. That's how we go about it. We tease each other about “the veto power,” but they're going to get to inherit that at some point in time.


                        We've actually got the eighth generation around here now a lot. I've got a grandson that's two and a half, and he wants to know what's going on around here, even at that young age. That's how we treat it. No two farms are the same. Every farm family has to figure out what's going to work for them, and it's not easy. You're right: communication, passion — those are all key parts of it.


Brian:             You've touched on this, of it not being easy. I think a really tough moment has to be when you let your sons, Tyler and Glen, make their first mistake. David, when will you let Tyler and Glen make their first mistake? If you have already, how did it go?


David:             We're actually dealing with one now. We had some feed that got made in the feed mill without the micro ingredients in there, and that affected a couple of rows of production, so we're living through that. Like I say, I've been there a couple of times over my career with a decision made, and you have to allow it. It's no one's fault. Mistakes happen. It's how do you handle the mistake, and how do you learn from it? I've had a few instances over my career where it really changed fundamentally how we did things, by making that mistake. That's part of it.


Brian:             Well, I was just going to say, yeah, that transition from generation to generation isn't easy. The question I have for you, Tyler — and I'll provide a little more context to it — is how are you different than your dad? At Alltech, we've undergone a similar transition. I’ve had the pleasure to know the late Dr. Pearse Lyons, the founder of Alltech, and the current president and CEO of Alltech, Dr. Mark Lyons.


                        Dr. Pearse Lyons was this driving, visionary entrepreneur. Currently, Mark Lyons is also very entrepreneurial but is really gifted at collaboration, at partnership. He can bring people together unlike anyone I've seen. What's been smart is Dr. Lyons hasn't tried to just be like his dad; he's utilized his unique strengths, and the company has really benefited from that. So, I guess my question to you is: How are you different than your dad?


Tyler:              Well, that's actually a pretty tough question to answer. I've got people who tell me I'm quite a lot like my father. I always have the push to grow the operation. One of the arguments we had is, when you build a barn, what number of birds do you build for? When Dad built his barn in ’86, he built it for 25,400. At the time, he didn't realize this, but they didn't get a quota increase or a bird increase up until the early 2000s, when the barn was almost past its life. But on the other hand, I fought to have extra room in the barn, and we built that back in 2018. Here we are, and we're full, no room to do any bigger, unless we build another barn.


I don't know. I'd like to think I'm more aggressive when it comes to wanting to grow the operation.


David:             Just to clarify that, here in Canada, we have supply management, so we're only allowed a certain number of birds. It's a quota system, and in the quota, you can buy or sell as needed. But as the market grows, then our provincial and national boards will increase the quota, and that's how you grow your quota. That's a whole other conversation.


Brian:             Well, that makes complete sense, and I think it gives some perspective for our international audience. To your point, Tyler, it really seems like you've continued the legacy of Coburn Farms of making decisions that fit the business. That may be a consistency, which is very good throughout generations, but it seems like you've been willing to continue to take those risks that fit the needs of the business. One really final question for you, Tyler, for this conversation is: What advice would you give to someone who's stepping up or continuing a family legacy?


Tyler:              You've got to initiate the conversation and show that you're interested, but keep in mind that if you are working on your family operation — and even if you're a farmhand on someone else's operation that has no people to take it over — you have to make people aware of sweat equity. Yes, you're working on it. Like my father said earlier, he gave us 20% when we graduated from college, and we've had some skin in the game, so then it's not just his head on the table. It's all of ours. It's initiating the conversation, having the tough discussions, which most of us don't want to have those, but it's to keep the ball rolling. You've got to have a plan for the future.


Brian:             That is fantastic. I think that is really — that last point, of having the courage to have tough conversations, particularly within family, is never easy. It's never comfortable. That's something, both David and Tyler, you've touched on, this open line of communication, this transition from being the owner to someone who's being more of a guiding figure, not a dictator. There are just so many lessons. A couple others that stuck out is just taking this early initiative but understanding it's not going to be easy and no two farms are the same.


                        I think this has been a really encouraging conversation, something that will give our listeners advice on how to successfully transition a business between generations. David and Tyler, thank you very much for being on the Ag Future podcast.


David:             Thank you.


Tyler:              Thank you.


Brian:             This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts, and leave a review if you enjoyed this episode.