Viroqua Wisconsin: A Sustainable Living Community

Learn about Viroqua Wisconsin, a sustainable living community. Viroqua residents work to preserve their home’s history, local businesses, natural resources and commitment to small, organic farms.

Viroqua’s Saturday farmers market.

Viroqua’s Saturday farmers market.

Photo by Terry Noble

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A great place to live you've never heard of is Viroqua, Wisconsin, a sustainable living community. A great place to live you've never heard of is Viroqua Wisconsin, a sustainable living community. Viroqua is home to heavenly cheese and business savvy.

Viroqua Wisconsin: A Sustainable Living Community

The tiny town of Viroqua, Wisc., 90 miles north of Madison, is a bellwether community in changing times. Despite continuing mainstream focus on growth and the quantity of life, Viroqua emphasizes sustainability, preservation and quality of life. A good example is the Viroqua Food Cooperative on North Main Street.

A walk through the co-op’s aisles is a little like a reception line; you feel like you’re actually meeting the growers, whose names, faces and farms are prominently displayed. “Featured Local Cheese,” says a sign in front of apple-smoked cheddar cheese from a local dairy farm. “Hand-rubbed with paprika. Won first place at the American Cheese Society competition,” the sign explains. What the co-op is selling is a way of life, and Viroqua residents are buying it. In the past few years, co-op membership has expanded from 890 to about 2,000, and the size of its new store is seven times larger than the old.

The Viroqua area has one of the densest populations of organic farmers in the country, many of which are members of the Organic Valley farm cooperative headquartered near Viroqua. When the size and clout of corporate farms threatened the region’s small family farms, growers united to create a market niche for organic food. From its original membership of seven farmers, Organic Valley has grown to more than 1,200 family farms. The strategy works: Small dairy farmer Paul Deutsch is paid 25 percent more per gallon of milk than conventional producers.

Deutsch recalls the crisis local businesses faced when Wal-Mart came to town in the late 1980s — seven businesses went broke. But Viroqua rallied, becoming “The Town That Beat Wal-Mart,” as coined by Smithsonian magazine in 1992, by revamping small business inventories to sell merchandise that Wal-Mart didn’t. They took advantage of business consulting paid for by the state, learned how to conduct market surveys and thus brought Main Street back to life. Since 1989, Viroqua has seen 56 new businesses start up, creating more than 150 new jobs.

Viroqua, Wisconsin

Population: 4,383

Median House Price: $92,200

Climate: Cold winters, humid summers. January average: 12 degrees; July average: 70 degrees.

Natural Assets: Elevation: 1,277 feet; Wooded parks such as Wildcat Mountain State Park and Kickapoo Valley Reserve provide scenic trails; pastoral countryside; abundant fishing and canoeing.

Sustainability Initiatives: Stronghold of organic, sustainable agriculture and natural resource preservation.

Check out the other towns on our 2009 list of Great Places You’ve Never Heard Of. 

David Wann writes and produces documentaries about sustainable lifestyles. His most recent book, Simple Prosperity, is a sequel to the bestseller Affluenza that he co-authored.

david wann
8/5/2008 5:40:52 PM

Regarding the value of articles like this one, I'd like to add another two and a half cents. I've been writing about sustainable communities and producing videos and TV programs about them for years, including the books "Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods" and "Reinventing Communities: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing"; and the documentaries "Designing a Great Neighborhood," (which has aired on various TV stations and film festivals and "Building Livable Communities," produced for then-VP Al Gore's office. I've also lived for twelve years in a neighborhood I helped design, according to the cohousing template. So community is a value that I've paid a lot of attention to. Presenting models of excellence is one way of changing the world for the better, in my opinion. If one community hears what another is doing, it becomes a stimulus to "try this at home." The intent is not to convince readers to move to these great places, but simply to emulate what they are doing. There is a lot of evidence that Americans are re-localizing and taking greater pride in where they live, and this is very exciting and hopeful! Dave Wann, author of "9 Great Places You've Never Heard Of" and the book, "Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle."

8/5/2008 4:06:28 PM

I wonder what the purpose of this sort of article might be? In the past I have seen the very negative transition that a town can experience if enough of these sorts of articles are written about any given area. First the traditional character of region, whatever it may have been, begins a metamorphosis into a new an entirely new and previously unknown era. This includes drawing people to a region who, incapable of using their own minds to find a living environment that might suit them, rely on articles such as this to tell them where they should live. They do not necessarily fit in to the given area but hey, the article said this is where they should live for reasons x, y, and z. So off they go armed with financial wherewithal and little else that prepares them for life in a new situation. The new arrivals buy land and houses at rates beyond the reasonable price expected based on historical sales. This in turn drives up prices and taxes that then become a burden to the original residents of the area who generally do not have the financial wherewithal to support such unreasonable cost of living increases. Right behind an influx of such new residents comes a dramatic increase in the crime rate. Why this is so I am not certain but I am certain that it is so. Now the long time residents are looking at unreasonable price increases for just about everything, an influx of people who they little understand, and in many cases care for even less, and a disturbing rise in crime. The original residents of the area were there mostly because the area offered the lifestyle they enjoyed in an environment that suits them. The new arrivals are there largely because they want to escape their current situation and some newspaper or magazine told them to go to a particular location. That two such groups would not see eye to eye is no surprise. This is neither conjecture nor assumption as I have watched this exact scenario play out more than once after a serie

ann morrison
7/31/2008 2:34:39 PM

I was born and raised in Viroqua, my family goes back to the first white settlers of the area in the 1850's. When I graduated High School in 1980, the majority of us were told "leave this town, there is no future here." So most of us did. When Reagan came into office and slashed the milk subsidies, a great number of our tradition business owners (dairy farmers) went under. When I went to school over fifty percent of my classmates lived on dairy farms. This is no longer the case. Yes, I moved away, for about twenty years, living everywhere from Madison, Wisconsin, Southern California to London, where I lived for over a decade. When my daughter reached kindergarten age, I moved back to Viroqua. Things had changed. A large influx of new upper middle class people had flocked to our "quaint" area. New Organic Farmers in their twenties came and bought land with their parents' money. Land prices skyrocketed, and many of the people I grew up with, mostly working class - although we didn't know it as kids, because pretty much everyone was, are now living OFF the land and in the trailer courts. They work low paying jobs and no longer have access to the 'land' that was once priced within a working persons' reach. I think enough people have "discovered" Viroqua, enough, in fact to where there is a lot of bad feelings, class conflict, newcomer vs. townie, etc. I, personally, feel Viroqua no longer resembles a small town, it's a bit more like a Starbucks, so to speak, an upper middle class enclave, where those of us who grew up here serve as 'local quaint, color," i.e. background for the tourists who have put their hopefully temporary, but I'm afraid permanent stakes here. Yes, life's about changes, but do we all have to be colonized by the "haves" of this world? I wish it wasn't so. Ann Morrison Viroqua, Wisconsin

tony macasaet_1
7/28/2008 3:21:02 PM

Thank you Mother Earth News for your apt press on our most remarkable town! As a lifelong resident and passionate observer of Viroqua life, I though I would add a few other noteworthy highlights that make Viroqua "great". Viroqua is the beating heart of the Driftless Region... a geophysical area, approximately ninety miles across that has never been tilled by glaciers. That's right, Viroqua and the Driftless have endured at least three major ice ages, existing much as they do today, one of the only places in northern North America never entombed in ice. Many of us here believe this unusual unperturbed land exerts a healing effect upon the humans that inhabit the Driftless region. And we in return, as proud stewards of this patch of Earth, strive to perpetually heal the land. This symbiosis has existed for thousands of years and if our unglaciated history has any providence, will long into the future as well. Another fascinating element that distinguishes Viroqua is the wonderful and odd collection of souls that choose to reside here. Of course, every town has their eccentrics, but Viroqua is simply filled with them (myself included)! We are a band of flawed and lovable characters. Unlike almost anywhere I have ever been, the people of this area, if nothing else, are individuals. Distinct, humble humans, each unlike the other, each struggling to stay human despite the 'glacier' of expectations imposed by western society. And what a glorious struggle it is. Finally, there is the collective hive, a loose association of tribes, if you will. Viroqua's social matrix is amazing. While far from utopia, Viroqua reminds me a society before everything that could be centralized was. Balanced, evolving and sustainable. We have an exceptional public school system AND a highly regarded Waldorf school. We have many powerful alternative healers and a first-rate public hospital. Viroqua has innovative entrepreneurs, artisans, f