The new frontier of rural America

Modern life often seems to encourage the pursuit of meaningless goals. Could a return to small-town life bring a deeper joy to Americans?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt Brugger gets up close to one of his cows on his family farm in Albion, Nebraska. He and his brother moved home to start businesses.

In his new book “The Second Mountain,” author and columnist David Brooks examines a truth that seems particularly poignant. The things we spend so much of our lives pursuing are often not the things that truly bring us joy.

How easy it can be to value individual achievement, recognition, and influence as goals in themselves. And how often those who reach them find them ultimately unsatisfying, like a bank account that never fills, no matter how much money we put into it.

That is why the stories of twins Matt and Joe Brugger and of Taylor Walker seem to carry a spark of wisdom. Staff writer Laurent Belsie talked to them for this week’s cover story, chronicling how they are part of a nascent trend among some young people to go back to rural America and even life on the farm.

At this point, it’s unclear how big that trend will be. But there’s something in the mindset that matters beyond numbers. Consider how Laurent describes their journey back to rural America.

One professor told the Brugger twins, who now run a beef and agriculture business in Albion, Nebraska: “The best thing you can do for your community is find what you love to do. Start a business around it and hire people to come back ... and show other young people that you can do what you love in a rural community.”

Mr. Walker decided to open a restaurant in Gothenburg, Nebraska, when he considered “how the community of Gothenburg treated my dad with his businesses. If they continue that for me, then I owe it to them to be here.”

As I wrote in this column a few months ago, I had something of an epiphany when I visited a small Midwestern college recently. I saw how, amid all the views of Instagram-addled youth, they are dealing with an existential question – the very question Mr. Brooks raises. They see that the markers of adulthood – a job, a degree, a home – did not necessarily make their parents happy. So what does bring a deeper joy?

Mr. Brooks argues that the deepest joy comes from knitting oneself, heart and soul, into something larger – a vocation, a family, a philosophy or faith, or a community. “The good news is that what we give to our community in pennies, our communities give back to us in dollars,” he writes.

Many things are needed to help rural America thrive. Universal access to high-speed internet would be nice. New ideas and enormous persistence are a must. But something else is just as essential.

In their book about revitalizing small-town America, authors James and Deborah Fallows chose the title very carefully: “Our Towns.” Rural America needs the Brugger twins and Mr. Walker not just for their energy and fresh thinking, but also for the love they have for those communities. For them, Albion and Gothenburg are “their towns.” 

Perhaps towns like theirs can be a new frontier in answering the question of what brings deeper joy – supporting the realization that some investments pay back in much more than money.

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