By Tom Still

GREEN LAKE – 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.

Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here

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

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

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

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 description 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 that “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 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

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