GREAT FALLS — A rural, mixed animal practice was always in the plan for veterinarian Steven Hjartarson, a 1996 Cut Bank High School graduate.
After earning a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., he worked in Hermiston, Ore., a city of 17,000, and then Big Timber. In 2009, he purchased Northern Veterinary Clinic in his hometown.
"For us, we really wanted the rural lifestyle," Hjartarson said of the decision he and his wife, Bess, made to buy the practice. The couple have two elementary-school aged children. "It's never been on my radar to live in a town with a Home Depot or Wal-Mart. I've always wanted to be in a town with an agriculture-based economy and community. You could live in a city and work less hours and have a bigger pay check, but that isn't what we wanted."
Hjartarson is among what University of Minnesota Rural Sociologist Ben Winchester coins the "Brain Gain," in rural America.
"Discussions about the future of rural communities can have a negative tone, but this isn't your grandfather's rural," Winchester said. "You look at the numbers and you can see the rural narrative is being rewritten."
Automation and larger farms did drive rural young people toward cities decades ago to establish careers and overall, rural populations have shrunk, he said.
However, the actual number of people living in rural areas in the United States increased between 1970 and 2010 from 53.5 million to 59.5 million. Urban areas grew, too, but at a rate faster than rural areas, resulting in a proportional decline of the population living rural.
"When it comes to 30- to 40-year-olds, one in five live in a rural area today," Winchester said. "There is a growth in rural areas among the 30- to 35-year-old cohort, an age when a lot of people are re-examining their lives and looking for low density living. That's also the cohort we are seeing decreasing in numbers in many metro areas."
In Montana, half of the counties had an increase in residents ages 30 to 34 between the 2000 and 2010 census. Some of the largest gains were counties such as Gallatin and Yellowstone, with large cities such as Bozeman and Billings. But there were also gains in rural counties, such as Hill, with a 5.6 percent change in 30- to 34-year-olds, and Toole County, with a 25 percent increase in the age group between 2000 and 2010.
"When it comes to the reasons 30- to 40-year-olds say they want to move to a rural area, jobs isn't even in the top 10," Winchester said. "Quality of life is No. 1. Others are a slower pace, lower cost of housing, and safety and security. Many of these people are creating their own jobs."
That was the case for Hjartarson, who took out a loan to buy Northern Veterinary Clinic from its previous owner.
"It was a financial leap of faith," he said. "I had actually worked for the previous owner and although I hadn't ruled out one day trying to buy this practice, it wasn't something I planned on."
Conrad native Vanessa Bucklin, 35, had big city aspirations when she graduated from high school and was looking for a career in hotel administration. But by the time she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 1999, she was already strategizing ways to return to the Treasure State.
"I went to work for Wells Fargo in Las Vegas and was eventually able to interview for an opening in Great Falls, where I worked for five years in commercial and ag lending," Bucklin said. "Then I worked for Stockman Bank for eight years."
Recently Bucklin left banking to begin her own business, Pondera County Insurance.
"I had a great 15-year banking career, but I was ready to make a move and to make a major commitment to this community by investing in a business," she said.
Bucklin met her husband, Tyler, at the University of Montana, where she spent her first two years of college.
"He came with me to UNLV," she said. "We knew we didn't want to raise children in Las Vegas, so we started planning what we could do to make it back to Montana even then and still make a living."
Tyler is a teacher and coach and Vanessa interviewed with companies that had Montana locations.
When it comes to 30-somethings who migrate to rural areas, there is no profile, Winchester, the sociologist, said.
"It's all across the board," he said. "Some are certainly those who return to a family business, including a farm. Many are entrepreneurs."
Rural developers should refocus efforts from primarily recruiting industries that can potentially offer additional jobs to retain a community's current population to include efforts to welcome residents looking for a rural lifestyle, he said.
"We talk about the supposed 'Brain Drain,' as the loss of young people age 18 to 22 in our communities, which is not the global definition of a brain drain," Winchester said. "In other countries, they are talking about losing their engineers and trained physicians, not the young people who haven't even gotten a college education or career experience yet. We shouldn't be focused on inhibiting the flow of people."
Loralee Aikins, 33, grew up in Shelby and moved to Minneapolis for five years to pursue an education in massage therapy and launch her career. She returned to Shelby, single, and found plenty of people in her demographic. Today she is married to another Shelby native. The couple has three children, and Aikins opened a full-service spa and boutique, Spa 30, in early May.
"My husband works on an off-shore oil rig on the Santa Barbara coast, so he works three weeks on, three weeks off," she said. "People ask me why we don't live in Santa Barbara instead, but that isn't what we want."
Family ties, affordable housing and a safe place to raise a family where children can play outside keep the couple in north-central Montana.
"In a small town, everyone watches out for each other and as a business owner, the community support is unbelievable," Aikins said. "When we opened our doors, we had a shop full of flowers from people congratulating us and welcoming us to the Shelby business community. I don't think that would have happened in a larger city."
Aikins' business partner, Jennifer Masicano, is a newcomer to Shelby.
"Jennifer has told me how pleasantly surprised she is to be so embraced by the community already," Aikins said.
"When it comes to newcomers in rural communities, 36 percent have never lived in the communities before," Winchester said. "Right now, most communities aren't doing anything to encourage those newcomers, people in that 30 to 40 cohort, to live there. What would happen if we actually do something to recruit them?"