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A participant in the Wisconsin Rural Summit held late last month in Rice Lake posed for a picture. This year’s summit theme was “Can Small Towns Be Cool?”

RICE LAKE — Rural Wisconsin suffers from an “acute shortage” of trained professionals to help residents deal with mental health and substance abuse issues, according to Pamela Guthman, a clinical assistant professor in UW-Eau Claire’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

“Not only is this a large and growing issue, but we don’t have a coordinated response to address these issues,” Guthman said as part of a panel on issues deemed important to rural Wisconsin, including agriculture, housing, health care and infrastructure, at the Wisconsin Rural Summit held April 24-25 in Rice Lake.

Guthman said only 23 percent of the perceived need for mental health counseling is being met overall statewide, and the void is even greater in rural areas, where more than half of adults with mental illness receive no treatment at all. By the time they do get treatment, she said, it’s often too late to be of much help, and significant costs already have been incurred. The focus must turn to prevention, she said.

Even if help is available, Guthman said, many of those suffering are isolated, especially in parts of northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin needs 215 more psychologists, she said. The current state ratio is 560 patients per psychologist. Dane County’s ratio is 270:1, compared to 6,550:1 in Buffalo County and 3,300:1 in Calumet County.

Because of this lack of mental health care providers in rural areas and the fact that rural residents may need to be on waiting lists longer or travel further to be seen in a timely manner, residents often are at an increased risk of suicide, homelessness and substance abuse issues, she said.

“These issues are today; they were yesterday. ... They need help now.”

The need is even greater among minority populations such as Native Americans, and farmers are significantly affected due to current economic conditions in the agriculture industry. For every person who dies by suicide, at least 18 others are directly affected, triggering additional potential mental health and emotional challenges, Guthman said.

She said Wisconsin must get build “a community of resilience,” connecting people to resources and bringing mental health care to where people are, such as in schools and even workplaces. People must move past the stigma often attached to mental illness and foster more peer support networks, which are proven to decrease the need for more professional services.

“We need to move upstream on this issue,” she said.

Agriculture

Brian Winnekins, owner of WRDN Radio in Durand, said the station is planning a forum on mental health in agriculture for May, in partnership with Wisconsin Rural Partners. The main purpose will be to allow farmers to share their stories and “vent.”

He also addressed key concerns in Wisconsin’s agriculture industry, including the importance of follow-through on issues related to trade. The longer that critical trade agreements such as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement are stalled, the less rosy the outlook appears for farmers.

“The longer these trade wars go on, the more the U.S. loses market share,” Winnekins said. “The longer these things go on, the more we’re going to be hurt.”

The impact of the USMCA on Wisconsin is great. Mexico is the state’s biggest customer for dairy and corn, he said, and “as long as this is stuck, we are going to continue to have issues.”

While trade negotiations between the U.S. and China are about 97 percent complete, Winnekins said, that last 3 percent is the hardest part. The Chinese have made some commitments to purchase U.S. soybeans but could cancel at any time, which would be a “disaster,” he said. Soybean growers need this deal done by fall.

“Every day that passes without an agreement passed by Congress, we are going to have a lower chance that it will be passed,” he said. “By Oct. 31, if they’re not done, they won’t have it done at all until after the 2020 elections. We’re running out of time, and it’s a big deal.”

Trade issues in agriculture affect all rural counties in Wisconsin, according to Winnekins. Agriculture is a more than $1 billion industry in the state, and farmers spend $750 million on inputs with area suppliers to obtain those sales.

“If that goes away, we’re in a lot of trouble,” he said.

The severe outbreak of African swine fever in China’s hog industry is another major concern for U.S. agriculture, Winnekins said. The disease has wiped out 20 percent to 30 percent of China’s hog herd over the past year — the equivalent of the entire population of hogs in the U.S.

While the U.S. is shipping pork to China to help fill consumer demand, soybean growers here are feeling the pain of lost sales as there are fewer hogs to feed in China, he said. One of every three rows of U.S. soybeans is sent to China as feed.

“Brazil and Argentina are our biggest soybean competitors,” Winnekins said. “We’re losing market share.”

Winnekins said this past winter was a “perfect storm” for Wisconsin dairy farmers, who battled bitter cold and ice, followed by heavy snowfall that caused 300 to 400 barns to collapse across western Wisconsin, he said. That was followed by severe flooding.

“Some of those fields will not be planted this year, next year or the year after that,” due to sediment and garbage in fields, he said. Some farmers also are dealing with contaminated grain in storage due to flooding.

Meanwhile Palmer amaranth has taken root in the Midwest, with more than 90 percent yield drops possible in corn, and glyphosate resistance in waterhemp is on the rise. He said many farmers are having difficulty obtaining operational loans this year due to low commodity prices.

Looking on the bright side, nonfat dry milk prices are gaining, and there could finally be a “light at the end of the tunnel” for Class III milk prices and dairy producers, according to Winnekins.

Housing

Like many counties in the state, Barron County is struggling with issues related to workforce and housing needs, such as an aging housing stock and the out-migration of high school graduates, says Dave Armstrong, executive director of the Barron County Economic Development Corp.

Unemployment is very low statewide, and Armstrong said there are 600 to 700 open jobs in Barron County alone. He hears every week from employers having difficulty filling open positions. At the same time, about half of the county’s high school graduates leave the area each year for four-year colleges; more young people must be involved in training for the workforce, he said.

Armstrong said the poverty rate in Barron County is about 12 percent, and the county is working to create a “bridge” from poverty to prosperity and encourage more people, through tourism videos, to relocate to the area from the Twin Cities region and elsewhere in Wisconsin.

These efforts have been working, he said, and over the past couple of years, new initiatives have gotten underway to make sure those people have the kind of housing they want. However, the county recently completed a housing study that revealed big gaps.

Overall, housing is aging and not a lot of new homes are being built, Armstrong said. “People are healthier, so they’re aging in place longer and not necessarily keeping up their homes like they once did.”

Many of those in the workforce are seeking $90,000 to $150,000 homes, he said, but the average house in Rice Lake is in the “upper level,” at $244,000. Two-bedroom apartments run $600 to $750 per month, and there are 800 to 900 in Rice Lake. Armstrong said the challenge is in getting developers to come to rural areas such as Barron County vs. building in Madison and Eau Claire.

Two local communities have expressed a growing need for senior housing including assisted-living apartments, Armstrong said, and there’s a need for transitional housing for immigrants. Some employers are looking at providing their own housing for workers, and there’s talk of rehabbing some older housing to fill gaps for more affordable options.

“They’re desperate,” Armstrong said. “There’s a lot of throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.”

Infrastructure

Colter Sikora of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin touched on broadband expansion in the state, saying that things are headed in the right direction as far as bringing better Internet speeds and access to rural areas.

Eighty-six percent of those living in Wisconsin have access to Internet speeds defined as broadband, according to Sikora. However, in rural areas of the state, that figure dips to just more than 50 percent. That’s improving, he said, thanks to broadband expansion grant programs. Almost 140 grant awards have been given statewide since 2014, with $20 million in funding provided in 63 counties.

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed state budget calls for $78 million for broadband expansion grants to be given in 2019-21 and sets broadband speed goals of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload for all homes and businesses by 2025. Some $800 million is coming into the state from the federal government’s Connect America Fund, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched its ReConnect Loan and Grant Program.