Why Do People Want To Live In Your Town?

Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

Rural livability has become a focus at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. Thanks to federal grant money, the college is looking at what assets are needed to sustain Wisconsin’s rural communities.

One of the voices in the rural livability conversation belongs to Steven Deller. He specializes in rural economic growth and development. He’s also a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Today, he marries together for us the economic trends in rural Wisconsin and the human elements that play a role in keeping these towns resilient. He predicts the state’s economy in 2024 as a soft landing and a glass half full.

“Because of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates there was this expectation that we’d go into a recession,” he says. “It looks as though we’re not going to go into a recession, it looks as though we’re going got have a soft lesson, which is the optimal outcome.”

Inflation, interest rates, and unemployment rates are measurable economic signs for rural Wisconsin.

“When you start to get unemployment rates below 3 percent, you’re running into a very tight labor market,” he says. Wisconsin saw a record-low unemployment rate in April and May of 2.4 percent, according to the Department of Workforce Development. The December rate was 3.3 percent.

Deller says there’s no indication that the labor market will loosen up, especially in agriculture, due to the high costs of labor.

“The profit margins are such that a lot of farmers and a lot of processors simply cannot afford to pay more,” he says. “This is where we need to think about new pools of labor, and we need to talk about immigration policy.”

Deller says these measurable economic indicators aren’t the only factors that dictate the resiliency of rural Wisconsin. Other assets to a rural community relate to quality of life, which the Rural Livability project is working to quantify.

“I think that the timing for this type of work is appropriate,” he says. “A lot of communities across Wisconsin are kind of moving away from a ‘jobs’ focus, and they’re thinking ‘people’. What can we do to attract more people to live in this community?”

A year from now, the goal is to have a new website resource with ideas, case studies, and examples. Some of the findings that have already emerged — community farmers markets, and investments in schools and parks.

The current website regarding rural livability: https://blogs.extension.wisc.edu/community/

Learn more about the Rural Livability project: https://www.midwestfarmreport.com/2023/08/14/uw-launches-four-rural-initiatives/