Can the Prairie Generation save rural America?

Why We Wrote This

Never mind “keeping ‘em down on the farm.” The youths in this story are showing a deep commitment to their region, coming home as skilled agriculturalists and entrepreneurs, and injecting a much-needed dynamism.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hannah Esch stands amid her cows in Unadilla, Nebraska. She’s moved the family business into branded beef, selling directly to consumers. She uses social media to tell her family’s story.

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Taylor Walker was a year away from getting his teaching degree at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte, Nebraska, when his father called wondering if he wanted to start a restaurant back home.

That would be Gothenburg, Nebraska, a city of 3,448 with no stoplights and a big grain elevator just before the railroad tracks. His father had retired and sold his steakhouse in 2016. “Gothenburg got in a panic when it was gone,” says Mr. Walker.

So Mr. Walker skipped the degree and last September opened T. Walker’s on Main Street. Why move back to a rural community, anyway? “I’m not a real fan of the big cities,” says Mr. Walker. And “I had seen 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.”

There’s a new generation of rural entrepreneur returning to the Great Plains. These enterprising young people are starting small and unconventional operations. And unlike previous generations, they aren’t going off to big cities and then returning after a decade or two. Instead, these young people are often coming home right away. 

It’s not clear how big the movement is and whether it can reverse the population decline that’s gone on for a century in the rural Plains. But if energy combined with business and social media savvy can overcome demographic decline, then perhaps these youthful entrepreneurs – the first generation born after the farm crisis of the 1980s – have an opportunity to do it.

Outside Unadilla, Hannah Esch walks into her cooler and pulls out packages of rib-eye, brisket, and hamburger. Over the past nine months her new company, Oak Barn Beef, sold out of meat four times and brought in $52,000 in sales. Over the next year, she expects to double those sales numbers.

That will be a milestone. It will also be when she finishes her last year of college.

Some 150 miles northwest, the Brugger twins, Matt and Joe, show off how they’re diversifying from traditional agriculture. They directly market the beef from the cows they raise and they grow hops for local microbreweries. But the most visible sign of their commitment to the rural Plains is the two-story farmhouse they’re renovating on the family homestead. 

“We’ve just gotten to a point where we can live here,” says Matt, who moved in with his brother in May. It represents free housing, a key attraction for the budding entrepreneurs who have more ideas than dollars. But it’s more than that. It’s the place their great-grandfather bought when he moved here from Switzerland. It’s where their grandfather was born and where they played as children when the house was later rented by people who kept sheep. 

“We always wanted to be back in rural economic development,” says Matt. But it wasn’t clear until college what that would mean, which was going back to the family farm. The twins graduated in May.

There’s a new generation of rural entrepreneur returning to the Great Plains. Unlike those who take over a conventional farm and help make it bigger and more efficient, these enterprising young people are starting small and unconventional operations. And unlike previous generations, they aren’t going off to big cities to acquire skills and then returning after a decade or two. Instead, these young people who straddle the end of the millennial generation and the beginning of Generation Z are often coming home right away. 

It’s not clear how big the movement is and whether it can reverse the population decline that’s gone on for a century in the rural Plains. But if energy combined with business and social media savvy can overcome demographic decline, then perhaps these youthful entrepreneurs – the first generation born after the farm crisis of the 1980s – have an opportunity to do it.

“There is a spirit in these young people that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Tom Field, director of the eight-year-old Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Of the 120 or more of its alumni, “90% of them say their goal is to return – or they choose to live in – a small or rural community. These are students who have had international experiences, had internships on both coasts, but they choose to live and work and play in places where they have a deep affinity with the culture, the people, and the landscape.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Twins Joe (left) and Matt Brugger stand in front of their home in Albion, Nebraska.

It’s not just would-be farmers who are returning. Taylor Walker was a year or so away from getting his teaching degree at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte, Nebraska, when his father called wondering if he wanted to start a restaurant back home.

That would be Gothenburg, Nebraska, a city of 3,448 with no stoplights and a big grain elevator just before the railroad tracks. His father, who had run a succession of restaurants in town, had retired and sold his steakhouse in 2016. “Gothenburg got in a panic when it was gone,” says Mr. Walker. “[My father] thought it might be a good idea” to start a new one.

So Mr. Walker skipped the degree and last September opened T. Walker’s on Main Street. It’s much smaller than his dad’s steakhouse but more centrally located, just between Yancy Insurance Agency and Ribbons & Roses, a floral shop. Employees of the two banks across the street come over to enjoy a menu that runs from sirloin steak to grilled trout. “They’ve got the best hot beef sandwich,” says resident Verlin Janssen.

Why move back to a rural community, anyway? “I’m not a real fan of the big cities,” says Mr. Walker. And “I had seen 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.”

When the Brugger twins first started thinking about a return to the rural Plains, their initial idea was to do something in business development. Then they met with Dr. Field of the Engler program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He urged them to be role models, instead.

“He was the first one to say, ... ‘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,’” Matt recalls. “We completely changed our perspective.”

Now, the recent college graduates run their own company, Upstream Farms. They have 50 cows. They market the beef directly, mostly to the training table program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which serves high-quality foods to student athletes. They raise hops for nearby craft breweries, and because the university takes only the best cuts of beef, the twins sell the rest of their meat as hamburger to the boutique beer firms. 

“You grow up and you get to college and it’s all about the industrialization side of [agriculture],” says Matt. “We like to tip our hat to the way that things used to be: this way of life where you had hogs, cows, sheep, chickens. You grew four or five different kinds of crops all on one piece of land. ... We like to say that we’re twin brothers farming the Midwest, putting new ideas on old dirt and connecting our customers back to land.”

Those new ideas don’t always get the support of their father, Norman Brugger.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Matt and Joe Brugger buy cattle from their father, Norman Brugger, and use his land.

“Two years ago I said, ‘Dad, we need to grow more cover crops,’” Joe recalls. He explained the benefits of raising a crop over the winter to help build up a root system in the soil, which would allow them to use less fertilizer. “Cover crops are nothing new. ... [Grandpa] understood it,” Joe adds. “It was Dad who was like, ‘What! We’re going to plant again after we harvest?’”

Norman agreed to experiment with 80 acres. But in the spring, when they went to kill the crop to get ready for planting corn and soybeans, weeds started sprouting in the field because the cover crop seed had been contaminated.

“It was one of those things where I thought I knew what I was talking about,” Joe says. “And it just fell on its face.” Cover crops have been abandoned for the moment.

Perhaps that caution springs from Norman’s experience. He started farming in 1983, near the start of the worst farm crisis since the 1930s. At the time, farmers were going out of business because they had accumulated so much debt buying land at inflated prices during the booming 1970s. When interest rates skyrocketed and crop prices and land values plummeted during the 1980s, farm lenders could no longer justify the debt that farmers were carrying.

While others were selling out, Norman started buying land. It paid off in the long run but required him and his young family to live frugally while crop prices were depressed. A drought didn’t help. According to family lore, the twins’ older sister didn’t see rain until she was 3 years old.

So when the twins proposed building a distillery, their parents responded, “That’s really risky, guys,” Matt recalls. “They go, ‘You guys don’t know what it’s like to live in really, really hard times.’ And they’re right. We’re privileged not to have [known] that. And so we do take more risks. And I think that maybe someday ... it’ll catch up with us.”

“But maybe not,” he adds.

Starting a business anywhere is risky, but in rural America it’s even harder. That’s partly because a declining population means a shrinking market of customers.

“You definitely have got to pay attention to what the town has to offer,” says Mr. Walker, the restaurateur who’s following in his father’s footsteps. “Gothenburg does a very good job. They brought in Frito-Lay [which buys corn from local farmers]. ... The town has so many opportunities that it helps keep the people here.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Two men chat in downtown Gothenburg, Nebraska, across the street from a steakhouse that Taylor Walker came back to his hometown to open.

Stability is fragile on the prairie. Despite the good times, Gothenburg has lost more than 3% of its population since 2010, which puts it back to where it was in 1980, before the farm crisis. In rural Nebraska, however, that counts as a roaring success.

Many schoolchildren learn about the Homestead Act, the 1862 law that opened up the Western frontier to settlers with the lure of 160 acres of free federal land. But few outside Nebraska know about the Kincaid Act of 1904, which did the same for the Sandhills and the rest of north-central and western Nebraska. Because the land was arid, the Kincaid Act gave each homesteader 640 acres, a square mile of land – four times what the Homestead Act had offered. The western half of the state’s population skyrocketed.

Already, in eastern Nebraska, however, there were troubling signs of decline. In 21 of the state’s 93 counties, the population had peaked by 1900. One of them, Otoe County, where Ms. Esch runs her cattle, had seen its population grow sixfold in the three decades from the outbreak of the Civil War to 1890, but then it went into a long, slow decline. It lost nearly half its residents through 1990 before rebounding a bit.

The rapid surge from the Kincaid Act also began to wane soon enough. By 1940, the population had peaked in more than two-thirds of Nebraska’s counties covered by the law, including Boone County where the Bruggers live. Using machinery that got ever bigger each decade, farmers consolidated their holdings, and towns started to disappear. When the twins’ great-grandfather moved here from Switzerland, he lived in Akron, a small community built in anticipation of a railroad that never came through. The country store, dance hall, and church are long gone. The twins’ address is now Albion even though the town center is 13 miles away.

The decline in population not only crimps the number of people rural businesses can sell their wares to, but also reduces their labor pool. After graduating from Hastings College in Hastings, Nebraska, Jameon Rush stayed on to do video production for a regional bank based there. During that stint, he started his own video-production company on the side and, when he realized it was viable, struck out on his own full time. What he didn’t count on was the lack of local specialized talent. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows graze in a prairie outside Obert, Nebraska, bordered by plowed fields. Many acres of grassland have been converted into cropland in the Midwest.

“I was having difficulty finding the right people,” he says. Instead of finding a dependable No. 2 employee for his company, the position became a revolving door, he says. So this year he sold his company to a marketing agency, which was wanting to bring video production in-house. He now works for the firm and in June moved to Lincoln, the state capital, where the company is based. 

His relocation to the big city is symbolic of a troubling trend for rural Nebraska. Between 2000 and 2010, the typical rural county in the state (one with no town of 2,500 or more) lost nearly half its population of 20- to 24-year-olds, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. That is partially offset by a 16% net in-migration of 30- to 34-year-olds, presumably people who have worked elsewhere and are now wanting to return to the Great Plains.

But it’s not enough to reverse the overall trend of Nebraskans settling in urban and suburban areas. In 2010, the two counties containing Omaha and Lincoln as well as the county between them represented just over half of Nebraska’s entire population; by 2050, they’re projected to account for two-thirds. The state’s rural counties are expected to lose population over that time. 

For Ms. Esch, the future is bright with entrepreneurial possibilities. Her main customers are “moms and old men,” she says. The former are attracted by the beef that’s coming directly from the farmer; the latter want to eat the kind of steaks they remember from their youth. She has the meat butchered and wrapped, then ships it out in boxes ranging from 10 to 25 pounds. She’s gotten so experienced at shipping frozen meat that she’s thinking of doing it for other small beef companies, eventually doing custom butchering as well.

“And then I would love to own a storefront that incorporates something else,” she says, “whether that’s cooking classes at night for beef or a coffee shop in the morning and beef shipment throughout the day.” 

Even if the new generation of entrepreneurs succeeds in their attempts to work the soil, the question is whether they can really help revive the rural Midwest.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hannah Esch, a rising college senior, sells a variety of meat products through her company Oak Barn Beef.

“In my area, I’m gonna guess more [people will move in], just because we are so close to Lincoln and Omaha that people can still live this lifestyle but have the great jobs,” says Ms. Esch, bouncing along a rolling gravel road in her pickup. “How do you go live in the city after this?” 

But the rural parts of Nebraska and other states that aren’t close to a metropolitan area might be another matter. Ms. Esch’s own future is uncertain, because her father is getting out of the cattle business. By next February, even before she graduates, she could be down to 30 cows for her business. And it’s not clear she will stay in Unadilla.

“I think the [communities] that continue to innovate and make it a great place for people to live will have more people,” she says. “But the ones that don’t are going out of business.”

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