On May 2, dozens of men and women who live, work, serve or have an interest in helping rural residents and businesses enjoy a brighter future, gathered at the Holiday Inn and Convention Center for Wisconsin's 2014 Rural Summit.
Bill Pinkovitz, a researcher with the UW-Extension Center for Community and Economic Development, began by reviewing some of the highlights from "Rural Wisconsin Today," an easy-to-use document that contains a wealth of information about rural Wisconsin collected from a variety of sources.
The report is compiled by Wisconsin Rural Partners, the State Rural Development Council of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Extension Center for Community and Economic Development.
Pinkovitz acknowledged that rural Wisconsin has many assets. "For most rural people, these qualities far exceed the challenges," he said. "It's a place where elected officials are easily accessible and interact with each other regularly.
"Rural communities and schools also remain relatively safe and nurturing places, and schools have higher graduation rates, with many instances of higher academic achievement."
He related that entrepreneurship is prevalent and increasing because rural areas provide an environment that offers substantial freedom to follow one's dreams.
However, there are a number of familiar, persistent challenges facing rural Wisconsin including the "brain drain," the loss of family farms, deteriorating downtowns, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, inadequate access to health care and schools struggling with declining enrollments.
Pinkovitz admitted the report does not address every aspect of rural life in Wisconsin. "The environment, health care, transportation, infrastructure and other quality of life indicators are not addressed in this edition outside of those found in the areas we're highlighting," he explained. "Future editions of this report will take on these and other issues."
Accurately defining rural is not as easy as it might seem, said Pinkovitz. "There are several, sometimes conflicting, official definitions of rural."
The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as "all population, housing and territory not included within an urban area."
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget groups all counties in the United States into nine Rural-Urban Continuum Codes based on a county's population, degree of urbanization and proximity to a metropolitan area.
The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service utilizes the nine RUCCs developed by the OMB to classify counties into six gradations of non-metro (rural) and three gradations of metro (urban).
Pinkovitz noted that although 46 Wisconsin counties are considered rural, the RUCC classifications can be confusing. "Iowa and Green counties (RUCC 2) are considered rural by most people, yet they are included in the metro category because of their proximity to a major urban area (Dane County) and the corresponding economic influence the urban area has on the county," he said.
Following are some highlights from the report.
Wisconsin is significantly more rural than the U.S. with 26.5 percent of the state's population classified as rural, compared to 15 percent nationally. In 2010, Wisconsin had a rural population of 1.5 million people living in Wisconsin's rural counties.
While the nation's population grew by 27.3 million (9.7 percent) between 2000 and 2010, Wisconsin's population grew 6 percent and ranked 34th among states in growth. Wisconsin's population grew slower than the national average and slower than Minnesota (7.8 percent), but faster than Iowa (4.1 percent), Illinois (3.3 percent) and Michigan (-0.6 percent). Rural Wisconsin's population grew by only 3.2 percent during the decade compared to the urban areas of the state where the population increased by 7.1 percent.
Twenty counties, all rural, lost population during the period. However, 26 rural counties gained population. Eleven of the 26 grew faster than the state average and five greater than the U.S. rate of 9.7 percent.
St. Croix County grew at the fastest rate, with a 33.6 percent increase in population during the decade. Milwaukee County's population increased by less than 1 percent. Ten of the 26 urban counties grew by less than the state average.
Rural Wisconsin, like most of rural America, is older than its urban neighbors. According to most recent estimates, the median age in the United States is 37.2 years, compared to 38.5 years in Wisconsin.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, employment in Wisconsin increased by 87,722 (2.6 percent) between 2001 and 2011. During the same period, employment in rural Wisconsin grew 13,948 (1.7 percent). In 2011, rural Wisconsin accounted for 24.3 percent of all employment, but only 15.9 percent of the total employment growth in the state between 2001 and 2011.
In 22 rural counties, employment grew at faster rate than the state average. The largest increases in employment in rural Wisconsin occurred in Adams County (15.3 percent), Monroe County (13.5 percent) and Vernon County (10.6 percent).
Seventeen rural counties lost employment during the period. The greatest losses happened in Rusk County (-15.9 percent), Lincoln County (-10.5 percent), Iron County (-9.9 percent) and Vilas County (-9.2 percent).
Eight rural counties gained manufacturing jobs including Jackson County (20.2 percent) and Lafayette County (17 percent).
In 29 of the rural counties, over 50 percent of the residents with jobs worked outside the county where they lived. Over two-thirds worked outside their county of residence in seven rural Wisconsin counties.
During 2009-2010, 2,602 new businesses with 14,460 employees appeared on the employment roles in rural Wisconsin. A total of 8,448 businesses added employees, while 9,435 reduced the number of employees.
Incomes in most of rural counties are significantly lower than overall state incomes.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports a per capita income for Wisconsin of $27,426. That is slightly lower than the U.S. ($28,051) but slightly higher than the Midwest ($26,990). Per capita incomes in rural Wisconsin counties range from a low of $14,497 in Menominee County to a high of $30,509 in Door County.
Rural counties with the highest per capita incomes are primarily those located near major metro areas or have a significant tourism sector and a substantial population of higher-than-average income retirees who migrated to the area.
The 20 counties with the lowest per capita incomes in Wisconsin are all rural. Northern Wisconsin rural counties dominate the lowest tier of per capita incomes.
The importance of agriculture is not limited to rural Wisconsin. Some of the most productive agricultural counties in the state are metro counties. Dane County ranked first in 2007 in the market value of agricultural products.
Three of the top five agricultural producing counties in Wisconsin were classified as metro (Dane, Marathon and Fond du Lac).
At the other end of the spectrum, four of the five counties in the state producing the lowest market values of agricultural products were very rural (Iron, Forest, Florence and Menominee).
In total, 59.5 percent of all farms and 55 percent of the total market value of agricultural products produced in the state in 2007 were in rural Wisconsin.
According to the USDA, there were 69,756 farms in Wisconsin in 2012, covering 14.6 million acres or 41.9 percent of the state's 34.8 million acres. Almost one-third (32.2 percent) of the state's farms were less than 50 acres while only 8.8 percent were larger than 500 acres.
However, these larger farms accounted for 49 percent of all acres of farmland and 51.7 percent of the market value of all agricultural products produced in the state in 2007. Only 14.2 percent of the farms produced more than $250,000 in 2012, and 3.3 percent produced greater than $500,000 in market value.
The vast majority of farms in the state (86.8 percent) were owned by families or individuals. Family partnerships and corporations owned 12 percent in 2007.
The average principal farm operator was 56.4 years old. Only 5.9 percent of principal operators were less than 35 years old. Over half (56.4 percent) of all principal farm operators in Wisconsin were age 55 and older in 2012. The overwhelming majority (81 percent) have been on their current farm at least 10 years.
Today 195,650 rural residents are estimated to have at least a bachelor's degree, up from 42,558 in 1970.
In 1970, rural Wisconsin residents accounted for 18.7 percent of all state residents with at least a bachelor's degree. The 2008-12 ACS reports that current rural Wisconsin residents hold 19.4 percent of college degrees in the state.
Only five rural counties gained 15- to 24-year-olds during the decade (Jefferson, Grant, Walworth, Portage and Dunn). Three of the five (Grant, Portage and Dunn) are home to four-year University of Wisconsin campuses.
However, these losses were offset by gains in the number of 35- to 54-year-olds. During the same period, there was a net increase of 26,344 in the number of 35- to 54-year olds in the 46 rural Wisconsin counties.
According to the five-year 2008-12 American Community Survey, owners live in 75 percent of all occupied housing units in rural Wisconsin. That compares to owner occupancy rates of 68.6 percent in metro Wisconsin.
Housing in rural Wisconsin counties is newer, with over one quarter of all housing units built since 1990, a slightly higher percentage than Wisconsin as a whole and the United States.
The median value of owner-occupied homes in Wisconsin is $169,000. Only four rural Wisconsin counties have median home values greater than the state median (Jefferson, Vilas, Door and Walworth).
Multiple-unit housing is scarce in much of rural Wisconsin. Single unit homes accounted for 78.1 percent of all rural housing units. That compares to 70.9 percent statewide. Only 4.7 percent of rural housing units are in structures with 10 or more units, compared to 9.9 percent in the state.
The complete Rural Wisconsin Today report is available online at http://wirural.org/rwt.