MCVILLE, N.D. - Amy Smith recalls going through a bit of a restless phase in college.
"I didn't know what I was doing in college," she says. She cycled through majors, trying art, education, business and others.
"I was having a hard time trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and everything I tried just wasn't working," she says. "And then one day, Dad mentioned, 'Well, there's room back here.'"
"Back here" meant back on the Rorvig Ranch just south of McVille in northeastern North Dakota, where her dad, Dan Rorvig, runs the operation started by his grandfather, while his wife, Teresa, works at the hospital in town.
"Our relatives came to within 30 miles of here in 1882, but we've kind of come and gone by fits and jerks over the years," Dan says. "Right here in this area, my grandfather came here in the '30s, and we've been here ever since."
The Rorvigs calve out 900 cows and run yearling heifers and steers along the Sheyenne River. Their cows will calve in the pastures beyond their barns, beginning in late April, when the weather typically has moderated enough to leave the cows to their own devices.
"Our intention is to never see a calf born," he says.
Dan stops to "do the math," and says he's 58. In most occupations, that means gearing up for retirement. In agriculture, that's almost exactly the average age of farmers and ranchers. The figure, as of the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, was 57.5 years old, a number that continues to climb.
Amy joined the ranch full time after she finished college in 2014, and her husband, Taryl, whom she married in August 2018, joined the operation, too. Dan calls having a younger generation around "a privilege" that allows them to plan for the future and looks for opportunities to expand.
Hanging on the wall of one of the outbuildings at Rorvig Ranch is a framed set of receipts, showing that Dan's grandfather paid $30.47 for a hay rake in 1938 and that his father paid $7,210 for the same kind of implement in 2002. He hasn't yet added his own hay rake purchase receipt, for more than $20,000, to the frame, but it's easy to see he's proud to see the parallels of the operation through the generations and the chance his daughter now has to add to that legacy.
"If this thing wasn't going to go on to another 30 to 40 years, you'd probably do differently," Dan says. "You make decisions based on this fact."
Optimism for the future
While the average age of farmers and ranchers keeps climbing, that doesn't mean young people aren't interested in agriculture. Megan Roberts, a Mankato, Minn.-based educator on the University of Minnesota Extension's Agricultural Business Management team, says even with the tough farm economy, she still sees young and beginning farmers eager to join or take over existing operations. Often, they bring with them new ideas for products or environmental practices.
"There are also those who are looking at an outlook, at the current prices, and thinking they are needing to look in different directions," she says.
Roberts says anyone interested in joining an operation or in bringing in a younger operator needs to speak up. Having open conversations about the possibilities makes the process easier, she said. Even in the down economy, "there is optimism," she says.
"There are new ideas that are brought into a farm when there is a transition," she says. "And it's not always between family members. That same optimism and increase of ideas and ways of doing things in new ways can come from non-farm family members as well."
That's how it's been for the Rorvigs. Amy is hesitant to list anything she's added to the ranch, while Taryl, who was a bull rider and went to school to shoe horses, is happy to be able to be a cowboy on a ranch, just as he always hoped to be.
"I shoe their horses," he says. "I'm an extra body around and just help with whatever I can."
But Dan is quick to point out some of his daughter's contributions so far. Amy participated in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association Young Cattlemen's Conference, a beef industry leadership program. From there, she went on to the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. While she learned plenty in the lectures at the institute, she enjoyed the relationships she built as part of the experiences even more. And those relationships have paid off for Rorvig Ranch; they're selling yearling calves to people she met from Kansas and Oklahoma.
Beyond that, she's glad that she and Taryl can be there to help her parents, who work along with full-time hired man Jeff Iverson to keep the ranch going. And Dan is thankful for the infusion of youth on the place.
"Probably the best part is the fact that you know it's kind of fun to have youth around," he says. "They're not quite as cranky and cynical as the older generation."
Dan says not everything has been easy when it comes to incorporating a new generation into the ranch.
For one thing, there was no house available when Amy came back. But they overcame that by transforming a barn into a home. Now the downstairs of the barn provides space for Taryl's leatherwork, and the former loft is a snug living space for the young couple.
Beyond just a place to live, Dan says bringing on another family means making sure the ranch can support another family; that has meant some expansion and change.
"It comes with its own set of headaches like anything else," he says. "But, yeah, you know, there's more good than bad in it."
Taryl says joining a new operation has been mostly seamless for him. He grew up on a ranch in Litchville, N.D., but has learned all about taking care of more cattle from the Rorvigs. He advises others who marry into or join a new place to be open to learning.
"Don't be set on one way. Always keep your ears open and want to learn," he says.
Amy says she hasn't made any major decisions yet, but she has thoughts about the future.
"We talk always about more yearlings and less cows, and I see us going there someday," she says.
But for now, she's planning for the ranch's fifth generation's arrival in the spring and learning from her parents.
Dan, along with running the ranch, is the president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, and he sees plenty of young people moving into leadership ranks there as well.
People "blame a lot on the millenials," he says, but he sees the young people in agriculture as ambitious and smart and ready to take on challenges, just like the young people on his own ranch.
"It's kind of a luxury that not every place has," he says.