Luke Mahin heads the economic development office for the Republic County of Kansas, where there are many families who come from the city (Francesc Peirón)
FRANCESC PEIRÓN | COURTLAND (KANSAS) , CORRESPONDENT
10/26/2020 01:33 | Updated 10/26/2020 07:20
There’s a closet installed in the middle of a sidewalk on Main Street in Courtland . A poster specifies the only rule of use.
“Take what you need.”
In its interior various food products are exhibited.
“We don’t have homeless people, but some are in need,” explains 33-year-old Luke Mahin .
That the furniture is in perfect condition and, above all, that the items are arranged as in a shop window speak well of the civility of this small community.
In the middle of a conversation with Mahin, this traveling chronicler has a panic attack when he does not find his mobile phone.
On the run to the car. The iPhone is lying on the ground next to the vehicle. No one has seen it or perhaps no one has passed by to see it at this hour of a bright noon.
275 residents reside in this Kansas town .
“I am convinced that if someone had found your phone, they would have come to ask us,” says Mahin, director of the Republic County Office of Economic Development .
Some 177 kilometers, circulating between prairies and crossing minimal towns, separate Wheaton , the beginning of this route through rural America , and Courtland. Things of chance and the brain gain theory of movement ( recovery from brain drain) of Professor Ben Winchester serve as a compass to get to this point.
Mahin is an example of this theory which underlines the return to rural areas of people with academic training. Luke grew up in Courtland. His grandparents were involved in farming, but his parents were the first to leave the farm. He went on to study at Hays State University . His dream, however, was not success in a big city. At that time he was already feeding the idea of reinstating himself in his town.
“This is an atmosphere that gives you a lot of support,” he stresses. When he returned, he started part-time in communication and marketing tasks at a relative’s company, while supplementing his salary with other jobs: substitute teacher, roof repairman or in a tractor dealership. Until he began his exclusive dedication to the county.
“Of the 27 colleagues who graduated, more or less half have done the same as me. They work in health, in teaching, in things related to agriculture, such as ethanol plants or in the distribution of seeds, but not directly in production. There are more and more people returning for occupations outside the fields, ”he remarks.
“A high school classmate who moved to New York has decided to return,” he adds. And if there are no more cases, he adds, it is due to a serious lack: there is a lack of housing. Despite this, and in times of a pandemic, he has seen the sale of eleven houses in a couple of months.
“Here I am a valued young man, I would not have been the director of an organization in a big city, nor would I have enjoyed all these opportunities. It would have less social impact if it were just one more number in Chicago or Denver, ”he persists. “We only want equality, that our option is not seen as a minor. We congratulate those who choose the city, why not celebrate the rural alternative? ” The Internet has an essential role in accessing options until recently only urban.
“Agriculture is not more than 5% of the rural economy,” says sociologist Ben Winchester
Winchester, a rural sociologist at the University of Minnesota-Extension , has been determined to “rewrite the narrative.” Try to break the stereotype that everything is terrible in this environment. This review of the story supposes, according to his research, that the number of those who wish to live in rural places is increasing, despite not having had previous links with them.
“The population has fallen, but the family units have grown,” he maintains, breaking topics. Their conclusions do not refer to twentysomethings, generally more attracted to urban life ( brain drain , talent drain ). The return to ruralism is led by those between 30 and 40 years old.
Appointment among the attractions: not spending two hours to go to the office, more time with the family, cheaper housing, closeness to nature, a more relaxed pace or security, a factor highly praised by those who have children.
“Agriculture is not more than 5% of the rural economy,” he clarifies, even in states like Kansas or Nebraska . He points out that the main industries in rural America are healthcare and education. “The rural economy today is much more diverse because it does not depend on agriculture,” he insists.
“If towns are dying, why is it so difficult to find a house to buy?”, He reiterates. “It is said that they disappear because banks and stores close. It is not a failure of rural communities, these establishments also close in large cities. It is a phenomenon of globalization. In the towns you don’t buy locally, but rather there is a regional dynamic ”, he says.
On Main Street in Courtland, which has five churches, four barber shops, an elementary school, a couple of shops and restaurants, old buildings are being renovated. The bank is converting it into housing. The old gas station preserves the two refueling posts, which serve as an advertisement for Soul Sister , a ceramic (and jewelry) business.
In front is the artist Shanna Lindberg, another of the returnees, who together with her husband bought and rehabilitated the building.
Shanna grew up in this county, but in the town of Scandia . She attended Lawrence State University (KU) . “I thought I would never go back. Not because I don’t like this area. She was just a naive girl and she hadn’t seen much else. “
On vacation, she met her partner, a farmer from Courtland. “When I met him I knew she wanted to be here.” She tried to work on her own, as a journalist, at a radio station. She confesses not having a “radio voice”, so she devoted herself to his hobby, ceramics.
“At first it bothered me that they will ask me where I live. It said that in a very small, unknown place. Now I answer that Courtland is a wonderful town that they should know, ”he says. “There is a lot of misinformation about the rural world, you never feel lonely or bored.”
Before saying goodbye, Mahin explains that in this rural territory it is better not to know that you are a Democrat. “It draws a lot of attention.” Despite admitting that he is a Republican, he prefers not to reveal who he voted for four years ago or who he will support on November 3.
–Better today than in 2016?
– I got married, a personal decision that makes my life better.