Four projects that aim to support rural communities and tribal nations in Wisconsin have been selected to receive funding through the Wisconsin Rural Partnership initiative at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

The initiative, announced in December 2022, was established with $9.3 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The big-picture goals are to advance the land-grant mission of the university, support community-based projects, and create new partnerships to better meet the needs of rural communities. 

The university’s Wisconsin Rural Partnership initiative is part of a broader $28 million USDA-funded Institute for Rural Partnerships, housed at UW–Madison, Auburn University and the University of Vermont. The institute aims to promote equitable, resilient, and prosperous food and agricultural systems and expanded opportunities for rural community development. It will also foster collaborations with community-based initiatives and local research, educational institutions and subject matter experts. 

“Here in Wisconsin, our rural communities face unique challenges to growing their local economies and it is important we provide them the tools and resources they need to thrive in a changing environment and economy,” said Senator Tammy Baldwin. “I am proud to have helped deliver federal funding that will allow the Institute for Rural Partnerships to invest in the future of our communities. I am so pleased to see these dollars forge new partnerships, support economic development and meet the needs of rural Wisconsinites so they can live in the place they love.” 

Senator Tammy Baldwin speaks about the USDA-funded Institute for Rural Partnerships at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station on Aug. 8, 2023.

As previously announced, the Wisconsin Rural Partnership initiative has already provided funding for the Wisconsin Environmental Mesonet, a comprehensive statewide network of 90 environmental monitoring stations across Wisconsin that will help the agricultural community boost harvests and protect resources. The Rural Partnership is also helping to fund the state climatology office, housed in the UW Nelson Institute’s Center for Climatic Research. The office provides information and decision-support tools that help Wisconsinites – especially those in rural areas – effectively use weather information. 

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Division of Extension jointly sponsored a competition to solicit the best community-based research, extension, and education projects that engage local partners to solve challenges faced by rural communities and tribal nations in Wisconsin. 

“We are grateful for this funding and the support of Senator Baldwin,” said Dean Glenda Gillaspy of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “It is inspiring to see UW experts from many disciplines throughout the university focusing on problems facing our rural communities.” 

“All of these projects put a real emphasis on community outreach and partnering with the people affected by the opportunities and challenges our state’s rural areas see every day. We look forward to funding new research and connecting communities with UW–Madison to lift up rural voices, lives, and well-being,” said Karl Martin, Dean and Director of UW–Madison’s Division of Extension. 

The four research projects selected for Wisconsin Rural Partnership funding are: 

The Rural Livability Project 

In many rural areas of Wisconsin, access to grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, healthcare and other critical institutions and services is becoming increasingly challenging. At the same time, rural communities are seeing changes to their economic foundations as well as declines in civic engagement. These factors can make it difficult for rural residents to reliably meet their needs, reducing the livability of their communities. The aim of this project is to identify the key assets needed to sustain rural communities, and to find the best ways forward in developing community economic development policies and strategies to support rural livability. This project will help communities identify their local challenges along with the assets that can be mobilized to support a stronger future. 

Project leader: Tessa Conroy, Professor and Extension Specialist, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences 

Promoting Family-Centered and Family-School-Community Mental Health Support for Children in Rural Wisconsin Communities 

The U.S. is experiencing a crisis in children’s mental health, and there is a dearth of mental health resources for children in rural areas. This project aims to build capacity for sustained and integrated family-centered and family-school-community mental health support for children in rural Wisconsin communities. Researchers will work with community partners to plan and enhance readiness; provide training to education and human service professionals, school staff and community members; support supervision of those professionals and help evaluate the effectiveness of mental health services. School and community partners are in rural counties across the state. 

Project leaders: Andy Garbacz, School of Education; Robert Nix, School of Human Ecology; Jen Park-Mroch, Institute for Health and Well-Being, Division of Extension; Angela Flickinger, Institute for Health and Well-Being, Division of Extension 

Connecting Cultural Values and Indigenous Research Towards Food System Resilience 

The tribal nations within the boundaries of Wisconsin increasingly face environmental challenges that threaten Native food systems and community resilience. At the same time, Wisconsin Tribes are developing and implementing innovative food system transformation efforts to enhance community food security, access to culturally-appropriate foods and a return to traditional food economies. This project aims to engage tribal nations and a broad network of partners to co-create an understanding of high-priority, Indigenous-led research, education and outreach projects to help Wisconsin Tribes sustain and expand food sovereignty in the face of the state’s environmental challenges. The 28-person team will focus on five areas: Indigenous crop and livestock; community food systems and nutrition; wild rice; maple sugaring; and evaluation, communications and public participation. 

Project leaders: Tricia Gorby, Natural Resources Institute Director, Division of Extension; Dan Cornelius, Outreach Program Manager, UW Law School’s Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences 

Community Health Workers as a Bridge Between Extension and Rural Healthcare Systems to Support Whole Family Health and Well-Being 

Health inequities in rural areas are difficult to address because of limited access to healthcare and public health services and infrastructure constraints. Within rural communities, additional barriers exist for people with limited income and people of color, resulting in patterns of poorer health outcomes. This project will leverage UW–Madison Division of Extension’s Health & Well-Being Institute’s expertise and community assets to establish a network of Extension-based Community Health Workers (CHW), public health workers who are trusted members of a community, who can respond to emerging needs in rural communities using a whole family lens. Researchers will recruit, hire, train and supervise CHWs from rural and tribal communities in Wisconsin, providing workforce development and strengthening leadership among rural and tribal members. 

Project leaders: Amber Canto, Health and Well-Being Institute Director, Division of Extension; Larissa Duncan, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, School of Human Ecology; Zoua Vang, Professor and Extension Specialist, School of Human Ecology 

Contact: Heidi Zoerb; 608-262-4849;