WILLMAR - When he looks at the herd of 100 Angus cows and their frisky spring calves grazing in a pasture of belly-high grass, Cullen Fischer still can't believe his lifelong dream of raising cattle is coming true.
"It's kind of a pinch-me thing," said the 31-year-old from Lake Lillian about his good fortune of taking over ownership of the well-established cow-calf operation from a retired farmer he met just a few years ago - a man who will continue to be his mentor.
"I always knew what I wanted to do, but it was one of those things of would I ever get an opportunity to be able to do it?" said Fischer, while sitting at the dining room table of Orlo and Helen Almlie at their rural Lake Lillian farm.
Fischer said he knew a banker would never approve the kind of loan he would need to secure cattle, land, equipment and barns. He thought he'd be stuck in a job he didn't like while dreaming of being a cattleman.
Almlie - who grew up on a farm but spent 33 years in education before embarking on his passion of being a cattleman - saw a kindred spirit in Fischer.
"I kind of had, in my head down through the years, that if I can start out somebody in the farming sector, I'll be glad to do it. And that's what I'm doing," said Almlie, who turns 80 this year.
In a unique arrangement between non-relatives, both men get what they want.
Almlie said he's thrilled his herd will stay together in his home pasture - within eyeshot of his front door - and that a young man will get a chance to farm.
Fischer said he gets to live his dream to raise cattle.
And it all started with a knock on the door.
It's no secret the average age of America's farmers is increasing.
Matt Wohlman, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said there are "twice as many farmers" over the age of 65 as there are under the age of 35.
Considering these are the people charged with feeding a growing world population, those demographics present a "daunting challenge," Wohlman said.
"We need to get young farmers and young families back to Minnesota," Wohlman said. "Young farmers are the foundation of a successful and thriving rural economy."
In some cases it's difficult to bring - and keep - younger generations to the farm because of a lack of community amenities, too few jobs for non-farm spouses, challenges finding affordable health insurance and unreliable internet service.
But the biggest challenge for young people who do want to farm is finding affordable land, facilities, livestock and equipment to buy or rent.
Wohlman said he talks to young people every week who want to farm and are willing to move wherever there are opportunities they can afford.
Farmers without an heir to step in typically sell or rent to the highest bidder when they retire, which usually knocks beginning farmers out of the picture.
"But farmers have a tremendous connection to their land and the operations they built," Wohlman said, and they want to see it live on by helping the next generation get involved in agriculture.
New state programs that went into effect in January can help make that happen, he said.
Farmers at heart
Almlie enjoyed his career in education, which included serving as superintendent of the Grove City, Raymond and Willmar school districts.
But farming was in his blood.
"I was born and raised on a farm in North Dakota and sometimes it's hard to get it out of your system," Almlie said.
While working in Willmar, he and his wife moved to an 80-acre farm and bought "just a couple animals to keep the grass down around the yard," he said.
After retiring from education in 1996, the farm grew to 450 acres with a herd of 100 stock cows which he breeds and calves out each spring.
"I'm kind of like Orlo," said Fischer, who grew up on a small dairy farm about five miles down the road. "Cattle has been in my blood my whole life."
But with grandparents and parents still living on the farm and a brother who also wants to farm, Fischer said his options were limited.
"Growing up, I kind of knew there wasn't going to be room for me," he said. "It wasn't feasible for a small dairy farm to support that many people."
So he went door-knocking.
Fischer had heard about the fine herd of cows Almlie had and how well he took care of them. Even though he had never met the Almlies, Fischer knocked on their door a couple years ago and offered to help with chores if they ever had a need.
A few weeks later Almlie broke his foot and he called Fischer and asked if he'd like a job doing cattle chores.
"And since that time Cullen has been doing a lot of the farm work here, and this year I decided we're going to work out a deal where he can inherit all the livestock and I'm going to bow out," Almlie said.
They have worked out a financial arrangement that lets Fischer acquire ownership of the cattle and calves. He's also renting Almlie's pasture land and has access to his barns and equipment.
It's a plan that Almlie said protects both parties.
"My concern was I wanted to be fair so that Cullen could be successful in going into this occupation" Almlie said.
Fischer said there's "no way" he could farm without Almlie's help and mentorship. "I think it'd be about impossible for a young guy to go out and start buying cows," he said. "For any young farmer it's tough to start."
Almlie has no qualms about turning the business over to Fischer.
"I knew Cullen knew cattle very well. He did a very good job and that's why I decided that I'm going to make it available to him," Almlie said.
The Almlies' four children had no interest in farming and fully support their parents' decision to turn the operation over to Fischer, said Helen Almlie.
"We realized what a conscientious, dependable young man he is," she said. "He has been a godsend to us. It's been wonderful."
The opportunity to raise cattle - along with the support of the Almlies - gives Fischer the extra drive to work hard. "I want to prove to Orlo how good of a job I can do," he said.
"You have to love cattle to do it. It takes a lot of passion. A lot of late nights," Fischer said. "You're out in the pouring rain, soaking wet, tromping through the mud. Some people would think you're nuts."
Fischer and Almlie said they know otherwise.
New state programs
To help get new farmers on the land, in 2017 the Minnesota Legislature passed the Beginning Farmer Incentive Credit that provides tax credits to the owners of farm assets who either rent or sell assets to a beginning farmer.
The new program includes incentives for farmers who sell or rent assets to those who are not close relatives - not children, grandchildren, spouses or siblings.
It includes a tax credit up to 5 percent of the sale of assets and up to 10 percent of the gross rental income.
Those credits can reduce the risk for older farmers to sell or rent to beginning farmers, Wohlman said.
A Beginning Farmer Management Credit is available for beginning farmers who enroll in an approved farm business management program, as well as scholarships for farm management classes.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a Farm Link service that includes a list of Minnesota farm properties that are for sale or rent by farmers willing to consider transitioning an existing farm to a beginning farmer.
Wohlman said the Rural Finance Authority also has a beginning farmer loan program that works with local lenders to secure lower interest rates for new farmers buying assets.
"There are a number of different avenues out there," he said.
The state programs, combined with existing farmers who have "a tremendous connection to making sure they're helping the next generation" gives Wohlman hope for the future of agriculture in Minnesota.