McKenzie ranch expands into agritourism
MCKENZIE — Jerry Doan always figured his oldest son would return to the family farm and make agriculture his lifelong career. But the elder Doan was a bit surprised when his three other children said they wanted to come back, too.
"I told them, ‘There’s not income to support all of you. If you want to come back, you’ll have to come up with another source of income that the farm can generate,’" he said.
The Doans haven’t reached that goal yet. But they’re getting closer. The two oldest sons, Jeremy and Jay, are back on the farm full time. Daughter Shanda, already involved part time on the family farm, is optimistic she’ll land a bigger role. And youngest son, Jayce, a college student, hopes to return full time after he finishes his education.
"It’s exciting and scary at the same time," Jerry said of having all his children so interested in returning.
The Doans, who have farmed and ranched for generations near McKenzie, have expanded into agritourism. Through their Rolling Plains Adventures, they provide paying customers with hunting, rural weddings, corporate events and "working ranch" experiences on the family’s Black Leg Ranch. And they’re looking into establishing a winery, which would strengthen their agritourism appeal.
Jerry Doan, 61, a fourth-generation rancher, also has increased the ranch’s emphasis on soil health, in part to increase the land’s productivity and generate more income from it. Expanded use of cover crops is one of the tools used by the Doans.
"The main reason (for emphasizing soil health) is I want to be sustainable," he said. "Sustainable is the buzzword now, but it’s the truth. I want it (quality of the land) to be better when they (his descendants) take it over than when I took it over."
But making the land more productive and supporting more livestock on it is a consideration, too.
The Doans have a cow-calf operation and also are involved in custom-grazing, or "selling our grass" to other cattle producers, as Jerry puts it.
The Doans’ cropland is in a partnership with neighbors. The Doans provide the land and make management decisions, the partner provides most of the equipment and labor.
"It’s worked out pretty well," Jerry said. "We don’t need to own all the equipment. I think it’s wiser in the big, long scope of things. I think it helps us focus on agritourism."
Agritourism is the key to the Doans’ goal of generating more income.
They’re not alone. A growing number of farmers and ranchers nationwide are tuning in to agritourism.
Nationwide, 33,161 farms generated $704 million in income from agritourism and recreational services, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, released this year.
The census is conducted every five years. The 2007 edition found that 23,350 U.S. farms generated $587 million in income from agritourism and recreational services.
Many people, both in the U.S. and overseas, are intrigued by ranches and the American West in general, said Karl Walker, international marketing manager of the North Dakota Tourism Division. He knows the Doans and is familiar with Rolling Plains Adventures.
"The Western lifestyle, what some people would call the cowboy lifestyle, is something that speaks to a lot of people as truly American," he said.
The Doans’ ranch is only a 20-minute drive from the airport in Bismarck. Family members say that’s a huge help in attracting customers to Rolling Plains Adventures.
Being close to an airport helps an agritourism business, but proximity isn’t required to be successful, Walker said.
He said his office is eager to talk with any ag producer in the state who’s interested in agritourism.
Began with hunting
Jeremy Doan, 34, is the oldest son, the one everyone in the family, including himself, assumed would come back to the ranch after college.
"It was kind of a given. It was always the plan. I grew up with it, and it was what I wanted," he said.
An avid hunter, he saw economic opportunity in hosting hunting on the family farm and first began doing so, on a limited scale, in 2000. Guests can hunt deer, waterfowl, coyote and pheasant. They can fish, too.
No one, including himself, expected Jay Doan, 32, to return to the family farm. Jay went to Arizona State University and joined a beer distributorship after college. He worked in sales, marketing and then in management.
"Jay was doing very well in the corporate world," Jerry said. "We didn’t expect him to come back."
But Jeremy and Jay are close, and Jeremy eventually persuaded Jay, who was living in Austin, Texas, at the time, to come back. Though corporate restructuring influenced his decision, Jay said he definitely wanted to return.
Jayce, 21, is a senior at Montana State University, where he has a rodeo scholarship. He smiles good-naturedly when his older brothers teasingly suggest that he picked MSU over home-state North Dakota State University because he thinks the Montana school has attractive coeds.
"I like ranching. I like cows," he said of his desire to return home after college. His parents and siblings say he’s the most traditional of the four children, the one most interested in ranching and least attracted to agritourism.
Shanda, 36, owns and operates a retail store in Bismarck, 20 miles to the west. She’s involved in the ranch agritourism business and hopes to expand her role.
She and her husband, Don Morgan, who grew up on a Wyoming ranch and now works outside agriculture, have three children. Shanda said she wants the kids to have the same on-ranch experiences she did as a child.
Rolling Plains Adventures
Jeremy and Jay renovated the aging farmhouse in which Jerry’s father was born and died, converting it into Rolling Plains Adventures’ main guest lodge. Building a new lodge would have been cheaper and easier, but visitors value history and tradition.
"The historical value of this house means so much," Jay said. "These people coming from out of state, out of the country — what they want to hear about is our family history, that we’re still a family ranch."
Guests of Rolling Plains Adventures aren’t exactly roughing it. Amenities include a hot tub, sauna, workout room, fire pit, bar, poker table and sand volleyball pit, among other things.
For more information, visit rollingplainsadventures.com.
Experts stress the need for communication in family businesses, especially ones with multiple members transitioning from one generation to the next.
The Doans agree on the importance of communication.
"Keep things out on the table," Jay said.
Jayce notes that the operation has very little hired help and depends on family members to do the work.
"We all have to work together. We need cooperation or it won’t be successful," he said.
Still, there are disagreements. One is over the use of certain buildings on the farmstead: Should they be adapted for agritourism or continue to be used for farming and ranching?
"We all have a common mission. But we’re all a bit different, and we all look at things at a little different," Jerry says.
Jeremy said operating the family business "is still evolving. It’s a challenge."
Shanda, for her part, said "My brothers and I disagree on some things, but we always have each other’s backs."
Agriculturalists on the Northern Plains once worried too few young farmers were entering the profession. Poor crop and livestock prices hammered profits, giving would-be producers no financial incentive to begin farming or ranching. Some farmers actively discouraged their grown children from returning.
Jerry Doan recounts this conversation he once had with a North Dakota farmer, whose grown children had established off-farm careers they didn’t want to give up:
"He came up to me, half in tears, and he said, ‘How did you get your kids to come back? None of mine are coming (back). And I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe I was too positive.’ And he said, ‘Maybe I wasn’t positive enough.’ "
Times have changed, however. Though crop prices have plunged in the past year, a long run of strong farm profits has encouraged more young farmers and ranchers to get started. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture found that North Dakota had 2,432 farmers ages 25 to 34, up from 2,065 in that age group identified by the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The 2012 census found more young farmers in most other states, as well.
Jerry Doan said farmers of all ages need to be positive, while also remembering that agriculture brings long stretches of financial difficulty. He cites his own experiences in the 1980s, when poor crop prices and high interest rates caused even the best producers to struggle.
"Like I said, it’s both exciting and scary that all my kids want to come back," he said.
For now, at least, he’s cautiously optimistic that all four children will have major roles in the family operation.
"We hope so. That’s what we’re working for," he said. "But we’ll just have to see how it all goes."