Luke Zahm left Vernon County, a farming region in southwestern Wisconsin, as soon as he could. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the area was depressed—dairy farming, which sustained much of the local economy, was in decline, and manufacturing jobs were leaving. By 2000 it was the third-poorest county in the state, with few opportunities for an ambitious 18-year-old. When he got into college in Chicago, Zahm assumed he was leaving for good.
But then, Zahm, 37, developed a passion for food. He trained as a chef at top restaurants in Madison, two hours away, and soon he and his wife Ruthie, 38 and also from Vernon County, dreamed of starting a place of their own. In 2011, as they were weighing their options, Zahm visited the visited the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York; he saw that much of the food there was sourced from his hometown.
“We realized we could open our restaurant back home,” said Zahm. Two years later, the couple bought a restaurant in the seat of Vernon County: Viroqua, population 4,362.
The rural Midwest has been in the national spotlight since November, as commentators look to Wisconsin and Michigan to help explain the surprise election of Donald Trump. One prevailing theory is that economic anxiety turned disenchanted citizens toward an anti-establishment candidate. Whether or not that’s true, one thing’s for certain: Vernon County doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative of a downtrodden heartland. In the last few years, this part of the state has instead seen something of a renaissance, as natives, returnees, and newcomers have created a thriving micro-economy, one that’s primarily built around local food.
Good energy, good food
“This area is Mecca for the organic food movement,” Zahm told me during a bustling lunch shift at his restaurant, the Driftless Café. He describes the fare as affordable farm-to-table. The menu changes every day based on available produce, and blackboards at the entrance list local farms and producers. (I had pork tacos, and Zahm, unprompted, told me the provenance of each ingredient on my plate, down to the cilantro.) A separate sign displays the restaurant’s motto: “Good energy equals good food.”
In the four years since the Zahms bought the Driftless Café, it’s become a local institution. It was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award earlier this year, and his restaurant draws visitors from all over the Midwest. When I visited, Zahm looked out over the floor and said he recognized only one group of diners: a table of women in yoga pants. Last year he ran an audit of credit card payments and found that more than half of his patrons were from out of town.
Main Street is dotted with establishments you don’t typically see in a 4,000-person farm town. The modern, minimalist Kickapoo Café serves pour-over coffee and cold brew, and Cowboy David’s offers gourmet cookies and cupcakes. On Fridays, Rooted Spoon, a catering company, serves craft cocktails, and on Saturdays, vendors operate one of the state’s largest farmers’ markets. The local food co-op, which has more members than Viroqua has adults, stocks homegrown products like GoMacro vegan protein bars and Wisco Pop organic soda.
“People are moving in from other places, and they’re bringing big ideas here,” said Ruthie Zahm, who manages the Driftless Café. The area has changed since Luke and Ruthie grew up here. For one, the economy has improved: Vernon County is no longer among the poorest 10 counties in the state. Last year its population grew by nearly 1 percent, making it the second-fastest growing county in Wisconsin. Nowadays Subarus share the road with pick-up trucks and horse-drawn buggies driven by the county’s Amish farmers.
Many of Viroqua’s challenges remain. Despite reductions in poverty, incomes are below the state average, and there are still several boarded-up storefronts on Main Street. Still, there’s the sense that something’s changing here, that a tiny town in a hard-up part of the state has started to reverse its fortunes through food.
The town that beat Walmart
The Driftless food movement didn’t happen overnight—or by accident.
Its roots trace back to the 1980s, as global economic forces started to take a toll at home, battering three industries the region had long relied on: agriculture, tobacco, and manufacturing.
It started in 1988, as local farmers faced a David-and-Goliath problem: Falling prices and rapid market consolidation were driving small farms across the Midwest out of business. The prevailing wisdom was that family farms had to scale up if they wanted to survive.
But Vernon County never fully embraced industrial agriculture, thanks to its independent streak and a quirk of its geological history: The retreating glaciers that flattened much of the Midwest 10,000 years ago had never reached the region in the first place. As a result, the Driftless region retained its hilly topography. Here, smaller scale, perennial production is a better fit than sprawling monocultures. Doubling down on row crops just wasn’t a feasible option.
The small farmers of Vernon County realized that they would have to join forces if they wanted to compete. Together, they formed the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP)—better known today as Organic Valley. CROPP began as just a seven-farm collective, but today it provides 1,800 producer members with infrastructure, marketing clout, and ultimately access to customers around the world.
The local impact has been transformative, and not just because Organic Valley employs more than 900 people at its headquarters in La Farge, Wisconsin, 15 miles east of Viroqua. It’s a major importer of talent to the area, and Vernon County’s largest employer. During a period when family farms in neighboring Iowa either disappeared or ballooned into sprawling, highly mechanized endeavors, CROPP allowed Vernon County’s farmland retain its diverse, decentralized character—a must for a good local food scene.
Resourcefulness, determination, and a willingness to work together allowed Vernon County’s agricultural producers to find a way forward while others struggled elsewhere. But those qualities didn’t just help preserve the region’s agricultural heritage. They also saved downtown Viroqua.
Like the farmland that surrounds it, Viroqua also faced hard times during the 1980s. Manufacturing jobs dried up as factories closed down or moved overseas. When Walmart opened in 1987, locals worried it would be a final blow to the already-struggling downtown.
Instead, local businesses teamed up and adapted. They switched up their inventory to carry items Walmart didn’t. They raised money to restore downtown buildings, recruit new businesses, and help existing shops stay in business. Viroqua was one of the first towns to adopt Wisconsin’s Main Street Program, a state-funded revitalization initiative, and, in the three years after Walmart came in, the number of downtown small businesses actually increased. In 1992, Smithsonian magazine dubbed Viroqua “The Town That Beat Walmart.”
“People here are really intent on supporting each other, and shopping locally is not something you have to drill into people’s heads,” said Nora Roughen-Schmidt, executive director of Viroqua Chamber Main Street (the organization is a cross between a chamber of commerce and a revitalization association).
Walk through downtown Viroqua today, and shops and restaurants there may seem like they’re pandering to recent trends: the growing appetite for precious, small-batch goods; the rekindled interest in terroir and local flavors; the broad influence of a certain brand of Brooklyn-esque chic. But these young businesses have been a long time in the making. The newest generation of Viroqua food entrepreneurs owes a lot to the ones who came before them—and to their creative solution-making, and patience in the face of adversity.
The most recent example: a large, low-slung industrial building on the north end of town.
A new home for foodmakers
In 2009, NCR, an ATM supply company, announced it was closing its 81-employee plant in Viroqua. Locals braced for another blow. But Sue Noble, executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) saw an opportunity.
At the time, VEDA wasn’t looking for a building. But Noble couldn’t imagine letting the space go vacant. Her organization was able to purchase the property from NCR at a price well below market rate. Ultimately, she hoped to turn the space into a home for food-manufacturing, one big enough to replace the 81 jobs lost when NCR left.
Buying the building, it turned out, was the easy part. In the end, it would require more than $4 million in upgrades to turn the 100,000-square-foot space into a viable home for food businesses, a build-out Noble financed one grant at a time. A $2 million grant from the Economic Development Administration helped modernize and refit the 40-year-old building, including new doors and windows. Five local banks put together a $1.8 million bond, which the tenants pay off each month with extra cash they make through tip revenues.
Today Viroqua’s Food Enterprise Center houses 20 food-manufacturing businesses, including Fizzeology Foods, which makes sauerkraut and kimchi from organic vegetables; Nami Chips, a line of veggie crisp snacks; and B&E’s Trees, barrel-aged maple syrup producers. So far, the center’s tenants employ 65 people.
Kickapoo Coffee Roasters, of the eponymous Main Street café, houses its production facility here, with an 80-panel solar array that powers most of its operations and a prized 1930’s vintage roaster; one Saturday a month they host tastings and tours of the roastery. “This has been an ideal place to start this kind of business,” said Caleb Nicholes, a cofounder of the company. “Our competitors are mostly from urban areas and their overhead costs are much higher. We have cheap rents, lots of space, and a community that’s really supportive.”
But the keystone tenant, arguably, is the Fifth Season Cooperative, a fruit and vegetable brokerage trying to do for produce what Organic Valley did for dairy and eggs. Originally funded by a $45,000 grant under the USDA’s “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” program, the co-op last year sold $600,000 worth of goods. (That’s at lower wholesale prices, not retail).
Fifth Season supplies many of the Food Enterprise Center’s tenants with the raw ingredients they use to make their products, but they’ve also grown big enough to move beyond the local market. The collective of several dozen producers has managed to score contracts with two major distributors, Sysco and Reinhart, who truck Vernon County-grown products to schools and institutions in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Chicago. These lucrative arrangements are out of reach for many small farmers, since distributors require consistent product at high volume and insist on multi-million dollar liability insurance policies—Reinhart’s alone is $10 million. But the co-op levels the playing field.
“That’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure that you don’t find anywhere else,” Noble said.
The promise of space, low costs of living, and good food are increasingly drawing ex-urbanites who don’t work in the industry. William Fiorella, 46, moved here with his family last year. Originally from the Bronx, he lived in Brooklyn in the 1990s and early aughts and spent most of the last decade in Los Angeles. He and his wife Megan had been wanting to move somewhere with a slower pace, and during a visit a few years ago to Minnesota, they took a detour to Viroqua. “This was the town that convinced us we could do it,” he said.
Fiorella, an acupuncturist, herbalist, and tai-chi instructor, set up a guitar-repair shop on Main Street; Megan works as a therapist nearby. They live in a farmhouse outside town where they grow kale, radishes, and medicinal herbs, among other things. Their two children attend a local Waldorf school.
“This community satisfies so many things that young, educated families are looking for,” said Roughen-Schmidt, of the Chamber Main Street, who’s lived in Vernon County for about a decade. “We have great schools, a nice healthcare system, and a vibrant arts and foodie culture.” Over the years locals have formed Waldorf and Montessori schools, in addition to parochial and public schools. Driftless Books & Music, an old tobacco warehouse that hosts live performances by night, is a local favorite.
It’s too soon to say how worldly and often wealthier transplants from the coasts will impact the region, and how wide the economic gap is between long-time Viroquans and more recent ones. Still, Noble says the troubling income statistics are somewhat misleading: Since the county’s population is largely agricultural, Vernon County can’t measure up to places with large numbers of office jobs. Besides, there are other benefits that aren’t factored into the economic data.
“Our standard of living might not be what it is in urban areas, but there’s a different set of values here,” she said. She said scenic beauty, clean air and water, and the ability to raise a family on a farm or in a small town are perks that don’t appear in government statistics.
As she travels regularly around the Midwest to exchange revitalization strategies with other towns and cities, Roughen-Schmidt feels optimistic about Viroqua’s future. Last year Chamber Main Street partnered with local building owners to offer short-term, rent-free leases to local businesses (Cowboy David’s, the high-end bakery, was one participant). The organization also implemented a micro-grant program modeled after Detroit’s SOUP program: residents gather, pool small amounts of money, and vote for local projects to fund. Recent recipients included a community garden and a historical preservation project.
Zahm, who serves on the board of Viroqua Chamber Main Street with Roughen-Schmidt, said he remains confident the region is on an upswing, and said he’s waiting for more restaurants like his to open in town.
“For small towns like mine, this is reassurance that we’re on the right path,” he said. “There’s growth in what we’re doing and in the lifestyles we’re pursuing.”