WASHBURN, N.D. - Joseph Sheldon had a good job - an agricultural engineer for Caterpillar in Plymouth, Minn., part of the Twin Cities area - but he really wasn't happy.
"I tried the big-city life and realized I just wasn't cut out for it. So I was drawn back here," says Sheldon, who in 2011 returned to his hometown of Washburn to begin farming with his family.
Sheldon, now 33, isn't alone. Washburn, north of Bismarck, N.D., and south of Minot, N.D., has seen an infusion of young farmers and young farm families in recent years. By one estimate, 20 people have returned to Washburn since 2011 because of farming.
An influx of young blood is particularly important in farming. The average age of the principal U.S. farm operator (the farmer who makes day-to-day decisions) is 58.3, and the average age of the principal North Dakota farm operator is 57. Those are 2012 numbers, the last year for which statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available.
In contrast, thanks to the arrival of the young farmers, the average age of Washburn area farmers is 50 to 55, estimates Tana Larsen, Washburn's economic development and marketing director.
A Washburn farm kid herself, she moved away for 18 years before returning eight years ago, in part to raise her two daughters here. She has relatives who farm, as well as many other connections to the community's farm community.
Darrell Scheresky, Washburn location manager for Dakota Agronomy Partners, also recognizes and welcomes the infusion of young farmers and their families.
"Through the decades, we've seen the (farmer) retirements and farms merging and that's a little depressing," says Scheresky, who's been in Washburn 18 years. "But in the last few years we've got a fairly good number of younger guys who have heavily involved in farming and doing a good job."
'An ag community'
Many rural communities in the Upper Midwest live and die with agriculture. But though ag is vital here, Washburn isn't a classic farm town. Energy (coal mining) and tourism (the city is home to the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and close to the Missouri River, among other things) are keys to the local economy, too.
Larsen describes Washburn as "progressive and always trying to position ourselves for the future."
Corn and soybeans are increasingly prominent in the Washburn area, but nearly all crops grown in North Dakota are raised here, too. Washburn boasts cattle and buffalo ranches, as well.
"At its core, this is still an ag community," Joseph Sheldon says.
Ag's importance is overlooked by many Washburn residents, Larsen says.
About 425 people live close to Washburn, though not in the city itself, and support the community, many of them closely connected to ag, she says.
Washburn's population, declining since the 1980s, dropped to about 1,250 in 2010. But the number has rallied to about 1,300, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Some Washburn-area residents - whose adult children moved away - have retired recently, and they've been replaced by young adults, some of whom have young children, Larsen says.
"It's not just mom and dad coming. It's mom and dad and a child or two," which accounts for at least part of the population rebound, she says.
Bridging the gap
Every young farmer and farm family is different, so generalizing is risky. But most of the young Washburn-area farmers came back because of the 2008-12 ag boom. Mostly strong commodity prices and good yields in that stretch generated attractive profits and encouraged young would-be farmers.
In contrast, farming in the late 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s generally wasn't attractive financially and few young adults began farming during that roughly 20-year stretch. With the paucity of new arrivals, the average age of farmers - most of whom began farming before the late 1980s - kept rising.
"Up until seven or eight years ago, there was a gap. And it was a big gap. You had nobody 20 and 30 years old in the farming community, and 55 years old was a young farmer at that time," says Rick Tweeten, 53, who has farmed near Washburn since 1986. He raises a number of crops and operates a certified wheat seed business.
"And now we've kind of filled that gap with guys who left (Washburn natives who moved away for jobs elsewhere). The farm economy kind of picked up and they had the opportunity to come back and make it work," Tweeten says.
The new farmers have something in common, too: They returned to family farms in which the principal operators - typically a father or uncle - were in their 50s or 60s and interested in transitioning the farm to the next generation.
Rick's son Grant, 23, returned to the farm two years ago after graduating from Bismarck State College with a degree in farm and ranch management.
"I grew up on this farm. I've been farming with my dad and grandpa forever. It's really the only thing I've ever wanted to do with my life," Grant says. "It just happened that I was able to come back and things have worked out pretty good."
Unlike many young farmers who returned to the family operation when economic times were good, Grant came back when the farm economy had slumped. Asked about that, he says, "You have to be careful, know when to stick your neck out. I always take it slow, try to do the best I can. And I always try to learn."
Grant's girlfriend is a student at North Dakota State University and plans to become a large-animal veterinarian. She enjoys rural areas and especially likes cattle.
The Sheldons once had cattle, but don't now. "We keep kidding him (Grant) that someday we'll need to have cows again," Rick says.
Larsen says with a smile that Washburn would benefit from the presence of a large-animal vet.
Quality of life
Improved economics in the 2008-12 boom, though crucial, wasn't the only reason young farmers and farm families have returned to Washburn. Quality of life was important, too.
That's what drew Tyge Sheldon, 31, back to Washburn. He and Joseph Sheldon are cousins.
Tyge Sheldon, facility manager for the SRS Commodities dry bean processing plant in Falkirk, N.D., just north of Washburn, was born and raised in the Washburn area. His father, uncle and cousins farm, and he regularly helps them.
Sheldon attended the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University and worked for a few years as an ag agronomist and applicator before returning home. He's worked at the Falkirk plant for about six years.
Moving to the Washburn area was "something I convinced my then girlfriend, now wife, (Allison) to do. Once I got her talked into it, it was a good fit," Sheldon says.
"The town, community, school - everything - it was just a place I really wanted to raise my kids," Sheldon says. He and Allison, who had a farm background, have two young children.
Though Washburn has enjoyed success in bringing back young adults and attracting young farm families, many ag communities haven't been so fortunate.
"It's the way North Dakota is," says Rick Tweeten, though his comments apply to much of the rest of the Upper Midwest, too.
"There are a lot of small towns that don't have a lot to offer to that (next) generation. They have some young farmers, but it can be tough for those guys to get married and convince the wife that they should live out here 40 or 50 miles from schools. It's a struggle," Tweeten says.
"The smaller towns keep getting smaller, and the bigger towns keep getting bigger. And in our modern society, it's getting tougher to convince them they should come out there and farm and be 40 or 50 miles from a grocery store, in some cases," he says.
Washburn is big enough and has enough to offer - it still has its own school, for instance- that the community avoids some of those challenges, Larsen says.
In any case, the farm economy's downturn makes bringing back young farmers more difficult, Tweeten says.
Attracting young families is vital to every community. They pay taxes, patronize local businesses and send their children to local children. No rural community can survive, much less thrive, without an infusion of young families to succeed the previous generation as the latter ages and reaches retirement.
Traditionally, young farmers also have served on local boards and civic organizations. But that's happening less often today, at least in Washburn.
While young farmers here are active in the community - Joseph Sheldon is president of the McLean County Farm Bureau and serves on the county Crop Improvement Board, for instance - 50- and 60-somethings continue to play the leading role in civic life.
That reflects the increased emphasis on young farmers spending more time with their children, leaving less time for civic activities, Larsen says.
"The time will come when they really get heavily involved in those other things. But for now they're focusing on their children," she says.
'All about family'
Brad Sheldon, Joseph's 67-year-old father, says the importance of family can't be overstated in his son's return.
"This was all about family, about having the family closer together. We were making money at the time (2010), and I told him this was an opportunity to come home and to think about it." Brad says. "I've encouraged him that North Dakota is a great place to raise a family."
Besides working on the farm, Joseph - an ag and biosystems engineering graduate from NDSU - helps his father sell insurance at Sheldon Crop Insurance in Washburn.
"He's tech-savvy, and I'm not. So it's been a good fit all around," Brad says.
Joseph and his wife, Kellie, were married in 2014. They lived in Bismarck at first before finding a home in Washburn.
Kellie was "a city girl (a native of Valley City, N.D., population about 6,600), so farm life was new to her. But she's taken to it pretty well," says Joseph, noting that Kellie and their two young children recently came out to ride with him in the combine.
Kellie works for a Washburn chiropractor and also helps at Sheldon Crop Insurance.
The move to Washburn has gone well, she says. "I enjoy small towns. And we have great neighbors."
Asked for suggestions on how people new to small farm towns can fit in, she answers, "Get to know your neighbors. And get involved in your church" or other local organizations and activities.
Joseph has seen major changes since he returned in 2011.
"Crop prices were good, and there was a lot moisture, sometimes too much. Now the prices aren't good and we're in a dry cycle," he says. "But I'm still glad I came back."