Navigating Business Structures in Agriculture: A Comprehensive Guide for Family Farms

Niels Jensen
| 9/26/2023

You're familiar with the nuances of soil pH levels, the timing of planting seasons, or the importance of proper irrigation. However, farming isn't just about the art of cultivating the land. It's also a business that demands strategic planning. In this complex environment, how you set up the framework of your agricultural enterprise—its business structure—can profoundly impact everything from your tax bracket to your liability exposure.

Crowe MacKay’s Agriculture industry experts share the pros and cons of various farm business structures and what kind of tax implications you can expect for each. If you require assistance, contact us in Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories or the Yukon.

Business Structures in Agriculture: The Structural Framework of Your Farming Business

Navigating the legal and financial aspects of setting up a business structure is no less intricate than understanding the science of soil fertility or pest control. Your business structure serves as the skeletal system for your farm, providing the shape and function that influence every other aspect of your operation.

Sole Proprietorship: The One-Man Army Approach

A sole proprietorship is the most straightforward of all the business structures. Here, you—the farm owner—are the sole proprietor, running the farm's day-to-day operations and responsible for all the profits and losses.

Pros of Sole Proprietorships: Simplicity and Tax Advantages for Multi-Income Individuals

Regarding paperwork and regulatory hurdles, the sole proprietorship wins hands down. You're essentially self-employed, and there are no partnership agreements or board meetings to worry about. You have the freedom to make rapid decisions, from crop selection to marketing strategies, without the need for consulting anyone else.

Where sole proprietorships truly shine is when individuals have multiple streams of income. Let's say you're someone with significant employment income, and you operate a small farm. In this scenario, a sole proprietorship can offer compelling tax advantages, where your farm’s losses can be categorized as "restricted" or "unrestricted."

By leveraging unrestricted farm losses, you can turn your agricultural venture into a tool for smart financial planning, adding another layer of appeal to the sole proprietorship structure for those juggling multiple income sources.

Restricted vs. Unrestricted Farm Losses

Restricted Farm Losses: These are limits placed on the amount of farm losses that can be applied against other income sources, especially if farming is not your chief source of income. The restricted farm loss limit is subject to changes and conditions set by the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA).

Unrestricted Farm Losses: If farming constitutes more than 50% of your total income, or you can demonstrate that you devote substantial time, capital, and effort to the farming business, your farm losses become "unrestricted." This means you can apply these losses against any other income source, such as significant employment income. This could lead to recovering a substantial amount of taxes paid on that employment income, effectively turning your farming venture into a smart tax optimization strategy.

Cons of Sole Proprietorships: Personal Liability and Limited Capital
While sole proprietorships offer simplicity and direct control, they come with significant downsides, particularly in terms of liability and tax planning. From a business viewpoint, sole proprietors are personally responsible for all the business debts and legal obligations. This means your personal assets, such as your home or car, could be at risk if the business incurs debt or faces a lawsuit. On the taxation side, sole proprietors don't have the same tax-deferment options or access to lower tax rates that corporations enjoy. All business income is considered personal income, making you potentially subject to higher tax rates, especially if you have other sources of income like a salaried job. Additionally, sole proprietors in Canada cannot take advantage of the Small Business Deduction, which significantly lowers the corporate tax rate for qualifying businesses.
Tax Implications for Sole Proprietorships
In Canada, as a sole proprietor, your farm's income is considered your personal income for tax purposes. This means you're responsible for reporting all business income and expenses on your individual income tax return using Form T2125 (Statement of Business or Professional Activities). You are also subject to Canada Pension Plan (CPP) contributions, which both employers and employees typically pay into, but as a self-employed individual, you are responsible for both portions. You can claim deductions on a range of expenses, from equipment to vehicle use, but your opportunities for tax minimization strategies may be less extensive compared to other business structures.

Partnerships: The Collective Dream

A partnership structure is akin to a traditional family farm, where responsibilities and profits are shared among partners. Partnerships can be general or limited, affecting the nature of each partner's liability and investment.

Cons of Partnerships: Complexity, Costs, and Additional Filing Requirements

While partnerships offer several advantages, they come with their own set of challenges. The shared decision-making can lead to disagreements and conflicts if all partners are not aligned in their vision and goals for the business. Additionally, partnerships are often bound by legal agreements that can be complex and require legal expertise to draft and review, adding to the initial setup costs.

Another downside is the added administrative burden compared to a sole proprietorship. In certain partnership structures, additional filings are mandatory, including partnership income tax returns and the partnership's Goods and Services Tax (GST) returns. These extra filing requirements not only add to the complexity but also result in additional costs for accounting and possibly late-filing penalties if not handled in a timely manner.

By being aware of these challenges, such as increased filing requirements and associated costs, you can make a more informed decision on whether a partnership is the right structure for your agricultural venture.

Tax Implications for Partnerships
In Canada, partnerships can be comprised of individuals, corporations, or a mix of both, offering a range of strategic tax planning options. Partnerships are "pass-through" entities, meaning the income and expenses flow directly to the individual or corporate partners. Individual partners report this income on their personal tax returns and are subject to Canada Pension Plan (CPP) contributions. Corporate partners include their share of partnership income in their corporate taxable income, subject to corporate tax rates, and can claim their share of deductible partnership expenses. CPP contributions for corporate partners align with their corporate payroll structure, offering a nuanced way to handle tax implications.
Pros of Partnerships: Collaboration, Estate Planning, and More

One of the key benefits of a partnership is the pooling of resources, be it financial, expertise, or labour. Sharing responsibilities and profits can create a more resilient and dynamic business model. Partnerships also offer increased flexibility in decision-making and profit distribution compared to more rigid structures like corporations.

Another significant advantage, especially for agricultural partnerships, is in the realm of estate planning. In certain circumstances, a partnership allows for the tax-deferred transfer of the farming business to the next generation. This is particularly useful in preserving the family farm and avoiding an immediate tax burden during the transition. The specific conditions under which this is allowed generally include:

  1. The farm must be a qualified farm property.
  2. The partnership assets primarily (more than 50%) consist of assets used in active farming by family members.
  3. The farm has been owned for a minimum period, often 24 months, before the transfer.
  4. The recipient of the transfer is a child or grandchild who is a Canadian resident.

This added estate planning benefit can make partnerships a highly attractive business structure for family-owned farms looking to transition the business to younger family members without the immediate stress of tax obligations.

Corporations: Not Just for the Big Players

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to be a massive agribusiness to benefit from a corporate structure. Even smaller family farms can leverage this structure to their advantage.

Cons of Corporations: Regulatory Burden and Double Taxation
In the corporate structure, there are specific regulatory and tax-related drawbacks to consider. From a business standpoint, the level of administrative oversight is notably rigorous. Corporations must adhere to a wide range of rules, including stringent record-keeping, regular board meetings, and both annual and quarterly reporting. These obligations translate to higher operational costs and administrative time. Tax-wise, corporations face a unique challenge: they are taxed initially on their earnings, and then shareholders are also taxed individually on any income they receive from the corporation, such as dividends or wages. This layered tax structure can make the overall tax liability higher compared to other business forms where income is only taxed once at the individual level.
Pros of Corporations: Legitimacy, Financial Leverage, and Tax Benefits

Corporations offer a variety of benefits that make them a popular choice for many business owners. First and foremost is the legal separation between the business and the individual, providing a layer of personal liability protection. This structure also lends legitimacy and credibility to the business, making it easier to attract investors and secure loans.

However, one of the most compelling advantages is the favourable tax environment. Specifically, the corporate tax rate for small businesses in Canada is remarkably lower than the highest personal income tax rates. The low corporate tax rate of just 11% allows businesses to retain significant earnings within the corporation. This can be strategically advantageous, especially if you don't need to withdraw all the profits for personal expenses. It enables robust corporate investment and paves the way for exponential business growth.

Tax Implications for Corporations
Corporations in Canada are unique in that they pay taxes on their taxable net income at the corporate level. Individual shareholders then face additional taxation on any funds withdrawn from the corporation for personal use, which can be taken out as either wages or dividends. The true advantage of a corporate structure comes into play when you don't need to withdraw all the profits for personal use. With a low corporate tax rate of just 11% for small businesses, a substantial amount of funds can be retained within the corporation. This offers a compelling financial lever for reinvestment and business growth, providing corporations with a robust financial cushion for future endeavours.

Joint Ventures: The Best of Both Worlds

A joint venture is a business arrangement in which two or more parties collaborate for a specific project or period. Unlike a partnership or a corporation, a joint venture is generally not a long-term or permanent business structure. Instead, it's more akin to a short-term contractual agreement where each party brings something to the table—be it skills, resources, or capital—and shares in the venture's profits, losses, and control.

This flexible setup allows each entity to maintain its separate business identity while reaping the benefits of collaboration. It's an attractive option for those who want to test the waters of a business relationship or undertake a specific project without the commitment of forming a more permanent structure like a partnership or a corporation. Because of its limited scope and duration, a joint venture can be an ideal way to pool resources and share risks for specific initiatives, whether entering a new market or developing a new product.

Cons of Joint Ventures: Limited Scope and Shared Risks

The time-bound nature of joint ventures means they often dissolve once the project ends, requiring new agreements for future collaborations. The legal framework is intricate, and a poorly drafted joint venture agreement can lead to financial and operational pitfalls.

Pros of Joint Ventures: Strategic Flexibility and Risk Mitigation
Joint ventures offer the flexibility of taking on specific, time-limited projects without long-term commitments. This allows you to pool resources and share the financial risks and benefits.
Tax Implications for Joint Ventures
For tax purposes, a joint venture can be treated similarly to a partnership if it is structured that way. Otherwise, each party reports its share of the venture's income, expenses, and tax benefits on its tax return, according to the specifics of the joint venture agreement.

Choosing the ideal business structure for your family farm is no small feat. It's akin to planting a tree: the care and thought you invest today will determine the fruit it bears for future generations. By understanding the depth of each option—from sole proprietorships and partnerships to corporations and joint ventures—you not only shield yourself from potential pitfalls but also position your agricultural enterprise for sustainable growth and enduring success.


This article has been published for general information. You should always contact your trusted advisor for specific guidance pertaining to your individual needs. This publication is not a substitute for obtaining personalized advice.

If you are in the Agriculture industry and require personalized support from a financial expert, Crowe MacKay’s advisors have the knowledge and expertise to support farming and agriculture businesses.

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Niels practice focuses on clients ranging from small, owner-managed businesses to large privately-held businesses. His client service focus spans across many areas including audit, accounting, taxation issues, and numerous special consulting engagements. Niels industry expertise clients include agricultural producers, municipalities, manufacturing, automotive dealerships, and non-profit organizations.
Niels Jensen
Niels Jensen

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