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Published July 27, 2010, 09:19 AM

At home in two worlds

LANGDON, N.D. — Vernetta Christianson sells houses and manages property. She drives a combine and keeps farm books, too. In a pinch, she’ll even pull a calf during spring calving.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

LANGDON, N.D. — Vernetta Christianson sells houses and manages property.

She drives a combine and keeps farm books, too. In a pinch, she’ll even pull a calf during spring calving.

“She’s been a go-getter ever since I married her,” says her husband, Von.

Vernetta Christianson operates Christianson Realty in Langdon, N.D. She manages and rents out other people’s property, both apartments and houses. She also has a real estate broker’s license and sells houses and other property in Langdon and in Cavalier and Pembina counties.

But she’s arranged her business so that she can help out on the family farm, especially during combining.

The Christiansons raise several crops, primarily soybeans, pinto beans and wheat. They also have a 55-head cow/calf operation.

It’s common for women to hold off-farm jobs, as their families need more money to pay the rising cost of health insurance and other living expenses, Christianson and others say.

In 2009 alone, the cost of medical insurance rose 6 percent for farm families enrolled in the North Dakota Farm Business Management Education Program.

“The way living costs keep going up, it’s more and more important to bring in money from off the farm,” Vernetta Christianson says.

Forty-six percent of U.S. farm households are “dual career” in which the spouse of the principal farm operator has an off-farm job, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That number doesn’t include principal farm operators who work off the farm as well.

Christianson says she expects to continue working both on and off the farm.

Finding her calling

Christianson’s family moved repeatedly when she was young. Her 13th move, when she was 10 years old, took her family to Langdon.

But 13 proved to be the charm: She’s been in Langdon ever since.

As a girl, she had no plans for making agriculture part of her future. That changed when she met Von, whose family farmed in the Langdon area. She was helping with his farming even before they married when she was 18.

“That was my first experience with farming, and I’ve loved it ever since,” she says.

When he was younger, Von Christianson, now 45, did custom combining as far away as Oklahoma, and Vernetta helped with that as well.

“So I’ve had a lot of experiences in agriculture. It was quite an experience for a city girl to experience calving for the first time,” she says

“There have been a few times, when my husband went off to an auction sale, I went out during calving season and pulled a calf,” she says.

Banking and business

Christianson, 40, spent a dozen years with the U.S. Bank branch in Langdon, including six years as its manager.

That gave her financial experience, including work with mortgages, as well as business contacts in the Langdon area.

She and Von entered the property rental business about 10 years ago. They currently have about 35 rental properties.

About six years ago, she decided to get her real estate license and go out on her own, purchasing and renaming an existing real estate business in Langdon.

Her experience with mortgages at the bank can be helpful now for people interested in buying or selling a home, she says.

There are a lot of similarities between the real estate/property management business and the family farm, she says. Both require good day-to-day management, she says. And both require plenty of knowledge.

“You have to know your business inside and out,” she says.

Holding its own

Langdon, the county seat of Cavalier County, has about 2,100 residents. Like most farm towns in the region, Langdon has struggled to hold its population as farms get bigger and families get smaller.

Langdon had 2,241 residents in 1990 and 2,335 in 1980.

The city almost certainly has fewer people today than a decade ago, says Don Haugen, a lifelong Langdon resident and president of the Cavalier County Job Development Authority.

But Langdon is faring well nonetheless, he says.

The town retains a critical mass that includes a hospital and clinic, active Main Street, numerous churches, nine-hole golf course, curling club and activities center with racquetball courts, weight rooms and gym, among other things.

What’s especially encouraging is that many young adults, Vernetta Christianson among them, are choosing to remain in Langdon and make it their lifelong home, he says.

“There will be a Langdon for a long time,” Haugen says.

Langdon’s economy also has been helped by the growing popularity of canola. Cavalier County is the leading producer of canola in North Dakota, which leads the nation in canola production.

Widespread disease in durum, a crop that was for decades closely linked to Cavalier County, caused producers to search for another crop, and canola filled the bill.

“Langdon is doing well,” Vernetta says.

Down on the farm

Christianson Realty has two other agents: Jennifer Jordan and Heather Duerre. They give Christianson the flexibility to take time off from her “town job” to help on the farm.

“I drive combine every fall. I drive tractor as needed, too. But I’m the main combiner. I always tell them I’m the boss,” Vernetta says with a laugh.

Having the two agents means “I can sit on the combine and not feel too guilty,” she says.

The agents can reach her on the combine by cell phone when necessary, she adds.

Combining is a family operation.

“My husband drives truck, usually. One of my sons drives truck. We have a hired man who drives the other combine. My father-in-law is on a tractor. We’re all there to help,” she says.

Vernetta has a commercial driver’s license and drives the truck when needed.

She also handles all the bookwork for the farm and has some involvement in marketing.

One year, Von gave her some soybeans to sell on her own.

“She made a good pretty profit on it,” he says.

She and Von discuss what he intends to plant each spring, although he already has a pretty good idea, she says.

Vernetta continues to help with the cattle, too, when necessary.

Von helps in the property management business through jobs such as painting, minor repairs and moving furniture. In the winter, he makes signs for Christianson Realty.

Farm community

The Christiansons have three children: a son who turns 21 in August, an 18-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.

Kale, the 18-year-old, plans to become a farmer. He’s going to farm management school this fall.

“It’s just something I like,” he says of farming.

He’ll be the fifth generation of his family to farm.

The Christiansons have about 2,800 acres of crop land. Another 500 acres, not suited for crops, goes for pasture and hay.

What’s good for agriculture is good for Langdon — and for Christianson Realty.

“Langdon is a farm community. If you’re not in farming, you’re usually in a business related to farming,” Vernetta says.

The success of her business, like that of other Langdon businesses, depends on ag, she says.

But not everyone, even in a farm community, understands farmers, she says.

“A lot of times you hear people say that farmers only work three months out of the year, or four or five — that type of thing. And I’m sure there are a few farmers out there like that who give the rest of us a bad name,” she says.

“But there are 365 days in the year, and the majority of farmers are working those days. My husband is one of them,” she says.

Vernetta has been active in number of community activities and organizations such as the hospital board and township board.

“Those are just the things you do in a small town,” she says.

She says leaving the bank and launching her own business has worked out well.

“It’s just nice to be out on my own and help with the farming when I can,” she says.