Bringing dream of farming to life
Aaron and Carrie Opdahl didn’t intend to develop a fruit orchard, run 34 cow-calf pairs or tend to tend to 100+ sheep.
Loretta Sorensen is a writer from Yankton, S.D.
But with help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Well County field office, the couple’s dream of raising their family in a country setting led to exactly that.
“It’s been about eight years since we purchased this old farmstead, which needed a lot of TLC (tender loving care). The main house was in bad shape so we thought we’d have to demolish it,” Aaron says. “Once we realized it could be saved, we began fixing and remodeling it. After three years we moved in and started building our life here.”
Between ferocious winter weather, bits of free time, growing their family from four to six children and maintaining the yard and trees over summer, the Opdahls totally restored and added large sections to their house. It went from basically a one-bedroom house with a loft to the current six-bedroom home.
“We found it efficient to work outside over summer and work inside during winter,” Aaron says.
Summers were spent fencing, planting trees, establishing a modest orchard, burning down an old granary and a second dilapidated house and cleaning up the former garden plot. Some aging, sturdy buildings they moved in provided a chicken coop, aviary for homing doves, shelter for rabbits, and occasional housing for pigs.
“These were mainly hobby animals, including bottle calves and sheep,” Aaron says. “As things progressed, we recognized we needed more adequate shelter for our animals, especially in winter.”
That led to construction of a pole barn, giving the oldest Opdahl children a new spring project and allowing for the addition of more calves and sheep.
Four bottle calves soon became eight. When some calves proved to be quality heifers, calving became an option. A leased bull provided opportunity to grow their program. Before long, the herd numbered 34.
“If all goes well this year, we’ll have 44 cow/calf pairs next year,” Aaron says.
Raising sheep took a similar road. Six bottle lambs evolved to the current flock of 120 ewes and lambs, and a couple rams.
The Opdahl’s 23-acre farm didn’t support both beef and sheep production, so they leased additional hay and pasture land, adding some 250 grazing acres.
“The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) field office in Fessenden helped with our windbreak renovation and windbreak planting,” Aaron says. “Facilities for working our cattle were set up on the leased acres.”
Wells County Soil Conservation District helped design the windbreak tree planting and James River 319 Watershed Project assisted with livestock pipeline, tank, fence and pasture and hay land planting.
Beef and sheep production alone don’t provide a sustainable living, so the Opdahl’s have continued developing their fruit orchard, annually planting and harvesting aronia and several other types of berries. They also own concrete, body shop and graphics/sign businesses.
“It’s pretty impossible to start a venture like farm this without supplemental income,” Aaron says. “My brother, Rodney, and I operate the concrete business. I and my wife, Carrie—who is business manager for all our operations—run the body shop, graphics and signs.”
The Opdahls sell some of beef and sheep directly to consumers. Berry crops are sold directly to consumers, wineries and other retailers.
“Our fruit is mostly non-certified organic,” Aaron says. “We’d like to market all our products to the food industry, but there isn’t a great enough demand yet. Until there is, most of our fruit will go to area wineries.”
Wells County NRCS District Conservationist Pam Copenhaver says her field office is honored that the Opdahls contacted them at the beginning of their restoration journey.
“They sought our technical advice to set up their farm,” Copenhaver says. “But we have learned so much from them as they have seemingly been unafraid to try different venues. Their experiences have increased our knowledge and their willingness to work hard has been essential to their ability to be profitable. We appreciate being allowed to participate in a small part of their farm and dream.”
Most recently, the Opdahls partnered with other area fruit growers to expand their income diversity. The expansion includes planting 111 apple trees on a partner’s land, with a long-term goal of producing both fresh and hard ciders, and potentially selling apples. Other partners have invested in planting specific varieties of apples in the Opdhal’s orchard to blend and mix with ciders for products with diverse flavors and qualities.
“I also have a lead on some pecan trees, if it all shakes out,” Aaron says. “I enjoy planting and experimenting with a wide variety of unique fruit and nut trees to see how they do in North Dakota.”
If area production and markets seem promising, the Opdahls hope to eventually attract partners in establishing larger fruit and nut plantings. Current varieties include plum varieties, apricots, pears, cherries, mulberries and hazelnuts.
“We want to grow these industries in our state; not just for us, but for everyone,” Aaron adds.
Aaron notes that establishing this type of operation is not for the weak of mind or back, as it’s not uncommon for the Opdahls to work 60 to 70 hours a week to get it all done.
“Our family is working together, and our children have opportunities they wouldn’t have in town. This is our dream, and we are bringing it to life,” he says.
Another of Aaron’s duties is serving as Fessenden’s Fire Protection District fire chief. He organizes monthly meetings and training events and manages related paperwork and personal relations.
“I guess you can say we are a little on the busy side, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Aaron says.