Field of dreams
Engler Scholars helping rural Nebraska thrive
Posted: Fri, Feb 8, 2019
The road to success looks the same for these two.
It’s an old dirt road on the edge of the Sandhills. Along either side are cattle and crops and green vines of hops, climbing up a web of wires attached to high metal poles. The road leads to an old white farmhouse with flowers out front, a windmill, a dog named Hazel, three red barns.
It leads to their dream.
Identical twins Joe and Matt Brugger are seniors in the Paul Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. They co-founded Upstream Farms a few years ago on the old family homestead near Albion, Nebraska. Their dream is to find new ways to make money off the land and to share what they learn with other young ag entrepreneurs, connecting with them face to face as well as through Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.
Their dream is to keep rural Nebraska alive.
Said Joe: “Driving down the road growing up, I just remember seeing FOR SALE signs on people’s land — farm sale after farm sale, smaller farms being pushed out by larger farms. That’s ultimately why we started Upstream. We wanted to fix the problem of rural communities vanishing from our landscape.”
Said Matt: “We really want to become the face of what we believe agriculture can be.”
Here’s their pitch:
Farmers raise feed. Ranchers raise cattle. Grocers sell beef. We do all three. We know every part of the process. Feel better about the beef you buy, by buying from Upstream.
Joe handles the crops and feed side of the business. Matt handles the cattle side. You can see their smiling faces in photos and footage on their social media sites. They post real moments from their lives, from raising their crops and hops and cattle to standing under a canopy at the Taste of Omaha event, which they did this past summer as they cut chunks of their dry-aged beef for people to try. (It sold out.)
In one video, you see them walk in slow motion near their poles of hops. Joe throws a shovel to Matt. Dirt flies in the air. Matt catches the shovel.
They say if you love what you do you'll never work a day in your life. We say that's bull****. We think if you do what you love, you'll work twice as hard ... but it's totally worth it.
In another video, Joe stands in a field and crushes a clod of dirt.
The background music is cool. The brothers love music. They’re both on the drum line of the Cornhusker Marching Band. They have their own band. They’ve made music a part of their business plan for Upstream and even fixed up an old barn as a venue for local artists. They call it Upstream Barn Sessions. Soon, they see the farm becoming a perfect site for rustic weddings and parties and other events that bring people together.
Farming, they say, is hard work. But it’s also romantic.
So is their own DNA:
The story goes that when their great-grandpa Sam Brugger came here from Switzerland in 1916, he had to leave his love behind. Her name was Elizabeth. For a year, he had no way to contact her, and she had no idea where he was or even if he was still alive. Finally, he was able to send her a letter with a ticket to Nebraska. They married. They moved into that old white farmhouse. They struggled. Sam tried his hand at many things. Farming. Ranching. Fixing shoes. He even made wine from grapes he grew on the hill behind the farmhouse. (Inspired by that, the twins soon will start a vineyard there, too.)
Sam and Elizabeth found a way — many ways — to survive. Their old farmhouse is now Upstream headquarters. It’s where Joe and Matt sleep when they’re back home.
And where they dream.
Said Joe: “Farming is romantic. It is. Something that always sticks in my mind is that if you ever think that you’re going in the wrong direction, you know that there’s four generations that came before us that made mistakes and four generations before us that also had done really great things.”
They’re passionate about Albion. They dream of turning some of the old buildings downtown into cool new businesses someday, in much the same way HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines have transformed Waco, Texas.
“I’m Chip,” said Matt, “and he’s Joanna.”
Growing hops is their latest venture. They just harvested their first crop.
“With all the microbreweries popping up around Nebraska, we felt there’s a lot of opportunities for farmers and people in agriculture to be involved in that space,” Matt said. “One of those ways is by growing hops. The people in the community are rooting us on, very much so, saying, ‘Hey, we would like to see these guys be successful with that.’”
They hosted a conference for local farmers to learn about hops and how growing hops could help them diversify their operations. They created a Facebook page for the event. They thought maybe a dozen people would join them, but about 50 showed up.
“That was really cool for us,” Matt said. “Our goal is not to make this just a successful business for us, but to make a model for other people to replicate as well.”
They’re thankful — and surprised — that their road even led them to Lincoln and to the Engler Program. They’d planned on playing football at a small school. They love football. But once they visited UNL and learned about the program, they immediately tore up their letters of intent. (You could say they still are involved in collegiate sports though — they’re now a beef provider for University of Nebraska Athletics.)
“Coming to the Engler Program was truly one of those life-changing experiences that everyone talks about,” Matt said. “It changed the direction of our life.”
Nebraska native and Hall of Fame cattleman Paul Engler inspires them to take risks, Matt and Joe said. Engler advises them wisely, based on his own struggles and successes. It’s fine to fall, he tells Engler Scholars — just fall forward.
Besides their Engler Scholarships, Joe and Matt also have Susan Thompson Buffett Scholarships. All of that support, they said, has made it so they don’t have to find extra jobs or worry about paying off college debt down the road.
They can focus on growing Upstream.
This past April, Joe and Matt stood before judges in the New Venture Competition at UNL and pitched their business plan. They were one of about 40 teams of students competing. They talked about their great-grandparents, Sam and Elizabeth. They talked about that old farmhouse, the beef and the barns. They talked about the new ideas they hope to plant in the old dirt.
And they talked about helping other people find success, too, along the way.