Turning brain drain into brain gain: Growth strategies for rural Wisconsin

Looking back on a litany of grant announcements by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past six months or so, I reached this conclusion: Wisconsin leaves a lot of federal money on the table.

In fairness, that’s true for programs well beyond those tied to rural development. Wisconsin has a long, across-the-board history of being a “donor” state when it comes to recouping tax dollars sent to Washington, D.C.

It’s nonetheless striking when the state fails to earn its fair share in an area in which it should be a national leader –– agriculture and the rural economy. Here are some examples of USDA grant programs I mentioned at last week’s Wisconsin Rural Partners summit in Green Lake:

  • The $16 billion “StrikeForce Initiative for Rural Growth” is active in 21 states, but not Wisconsin.
  • The USDA awarded $9 million in wood innovation grants, but only two of 43 found their way to Wisconsin.
  • About $19 million in food safety grants were authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill; there were no Wisconsin recipients.
  • Another $9 million was set aside for Childhood Obesity grants, also through the Farm Bill, and Wisconsin was not among the winners.
  • There was only one Wisconsin recipient –– the UW-Madison –– among 32 grants targeted to four rural development programs; only two Wisconsin recipients among 40 Beginning Farmer and Rancher grants; and no Badger awardees for a joint program with the United Kingdom on animal health and disease.

Coming up in the USDA pipeline: Applications for a $10 billion rural economic development fund launched last year, and national deadlines for $332 million in Agricultural Conservation Easement grants; $150 million set aside for the Rural Business Development Co.; $10 million for a rural health care initiative; and $1.2 billion for a Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative.

Wisconsin can and should compete in all of those categories, given the expertise of the state’s farmers, producers, developers, and researchers. With stronger partnerships between government, business, and higher education, more money now left on the table could be scooped up.

Strategies for creating more jobs and economic growth in rural Wisconsin extend far beyond government grants, of course, and many were discussed during the Rural Partners’ conference. They included continuing progress on extending broadband coverage to rural Wisconsin, attracting investment capital, encouraging entrepreneurs, increasing exports, and making the state more appealing to young people from elsewhere –– as well as those who left home and would like to return.

  • Just announced this month was a Gigabit Business Park mapping project that involved the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Wisconsin State Telephone Association, which identified more than 130 business sites with 1 to 100 gigabits of bandwidth per second. Fast Internet connections are vital to site selectors and small businesses seeking to compete nationally and beyond.
  • When the Wisconsin Angel Network was launched about 10 years ago, there were only a handful of angel networks and venture funds in Wisconsin and only one outside Madison or Milwaukee. Today, there are more than two dozen investor groups of all descriptions and more than a half dozen outside the state’s largest cities.
  • When the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition examined the rural economy a few years ago, it concluded, “over half of all new jobs created in most rural areas come from small, non-farm business ventures.” That’s among the reasons why the state’s universities and tech colleges are investing more in encouraging entrepreneurship and producing workers who can fill highly skilled jobs close to home.
  • Wisconsin’s exports have grown from $16.7 billion in 2009 to $23.5 billion last year, good for 19th among the 50 states overall. The state ranks 13th in agricultural exports, however, and can climb the ladder as the state gains experience in marketing and training businesses in how to crack into emerging markets. The world’s rapidly growing middle class needs more food, feed, fuel, and fiber, and they’re all products Wisconsin can offer.
  • Wisconsin’s “brain drain” –– meaning out-migration of people –– isn’t all that much better or worse than the United States’ as a whole. But its attraction of people from outside Wisconsin, especially recapturing those who grew up here, lags the U.S. average. Why? A lack of opportunities that pay well, and a perception that parts of the state aren’t “cool” enough for millennials, were factors cited by conference participants.

By building on its natural strengths and partnerships, closing the digital divide, encouraging start-ups (which need faster broadband), and fostering trade, rural Wisconsin can prosper in the 21st century. It might help, too, if someone began filling out a few grant applications.

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