SWCAP: Transitioning to a New Ethnic Reality

Southwestern Wisconsin, the region served by the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP), like other rural areas of Wisconsin and of the Midwest, is experiencing a dramatic shift in its demographic profile. No matter where one looks in terms of census data, community planning and/or economic development, size of school systems, church attendance, etc., the realities of the shift hit home. What one sees is the following:

  • The overall population will not grow or will actually decline. The current population for the five counties served by SWCAP (Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette and Richland) is 148,090 and is expected to grow to 158,485 by 2030 – or only a 7% increase overall. In some counties, the overall population is expected to drop.
  • The population of retirement age is expected to grow from 25,235 in 2015 to 38,820 in 2030, or an increase of 58%. The population is projected to get much older.
  • The total school enrollment in CESA 3 for the region dropped from 23,026 in 2001 to 19,554 in 2014, or a 15% drop – with some communities experiencing a more dramatic drop in enrolled children.
  • The average age of farmers in 1992 was 50 years of age. In 2012, it was 57 years of age. Recently, in Wisconsin, it was calculated at 63 years of age. As these farmers begin to ratchet down and approach retirement age – or the age where they cannot be as physically active working on the farm – the transition to younger farmers or farm workers will be a crucial issue.

These demographic factors could lead to a declining quality of life, a declining economy, a crisis in farm transitions and further outflows of young people who search for more opportunities in urban centers. However, at the same time, there has been (and will most likely continue to be) a dramatic growth in a new demographic group in southwestern Wisconsin that is rapidly changing the face of rural areas. The growth of the Hispanic (the term used by the U.S. Census Bureau) Spanish-speaking population primarily, but not exclusively, working on dairy farms has been significant and is rapidly changing the face of many small towns and rural areas. The workers and their families are coming from rural Mexico and, more recently, rural areas of Central America (such as Honduras). It is difficult to get an exact calculation of the rapid growth and most local people feel the numbers are under-reported but, based on the last U.S. Census data, the following percentage growth is evident:

Hispanic Percentage Population Change: 2000 – 2010

  • Grant County – 131.8%
  • Green County – 215.9%
  • Iowa County – 348.0%
  • Lafayette County – 467.4%
  • Richland County – 115.0%
  • Five-County Cumulative – 208.2%

This substantial growth, which could be very much affected by U.S. immigration policy, is expected to continue at a significant rate, largely due to the aging farm owner population, the inability to obtain native born farm workers and the tendency of the immigrant farm workers and their spouses to have large families. In Lafayette County alone, where the percentage growth is the greatest, the demand for workers on the fourteen (14) large dairy farms is not going to decline but, rather, it is expected to grow.

Accepting this reality of changing ethnicity in rural southwestern Wisconsin, the SWCAP board and leadership staff, along with partner organizations, are engaged in starting new services or modifying existing services, to be better able to serve Spanish-speaking immigrants and, in particular, farmworkers:

  • Hiring more bilingual staff in English and Spanish who are also culturally sensitive to the immigrant families. Although language is the primary challenge to deal with there, there are also issues of education, social class, country of origin (Mexico or Honduras, etc.), religion (Catholic or Evangelical), literacy, documentation, schooling of children, law enforcement, etc. Spanish-speaking staff have to be sensitive and prepared to deal with a variety of issues in addition to language. In recent years, bilingual staff have been hired as receptionists, Head Start aides, a WIC Nutritionist and a clinic assistant.
  • A free clinic in Dodgeville which as a very close relationship with SWCAP now has bilingual volunteers at every clinic session, since about 15% of patients are Spanish-speaking. The free dental clinic for children in Monroe has a bilingual dentist and several Spanish-speaking volunteers. Both Federally Qualified Health Center dental clinics in the area now have bilingual capacity.
  • SWCAP, coordinating with an English as a Second Language (ESL) local group of volunteers, has formed a Multicultural Outreach Program (MCOP) which meets, raises funds and provides services to the Spanish-speaking population. Major efforts to date have focused on English classes, a resource directory in English and Spanish and immigration law assistance by partnering with the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison. The MCOP has a native Spanish-speaking VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker employed by the University of Wisconsin – Extension who leads the outreach efforts. It is important to note that the MCOP leadership set up this program initially to serve Spanish-speaking individuals but is prepared to expand its services for any new immigrant group that would move into the area.
  • At the request of its staff and managers, SWCAP will very soon embark on a cultural diversity training program. The program will be based on similar efforts from the UW-Extension and the Iowa State University – Extension.
  • SWCAP is partnering with UMOS (United Migrant Opportunities Services) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development office to build a farm worker housing project in Lafayette County in 2016. The intent is to add an Early Head Start class at the building, along with space for ESL classes, WIC and a free clinic expansion.
  • SWCAP is also developing programming that will include a micro-finance project for very low-income business start-ups (which would include immigrants), a program to assist immigrant children remain in school and consider higher education, and a program to help with the interrelationships between farm owners and their Spanish-speaking workers.

Southwestern Wisconsin, like the rest of the state, was developed by immigrants from many countries many generations ago. They worked hard, took care of their families and the land and, over time, created a vibrant and thriving rural society. However, as their descendants age or move out, the danger to the vibrancy is real and could lead to the lessening of the rural lifestyle that their ancestors worked so hard to build.

The new groups of immigrants have many, if not the same, values and beliefs and a desire to make southwestern Wisconsin home. Through SWCAP’s 2013 Community Needs Assessment, it was discovered that a high number of immigrant families want to buy houses, settle in the area and call it “home”. SWCAP is committed to meeting the needs of these immigrant groups, while also assisting in every way possible to promote the gentle integration of the newer arrivals and those who have been living in the area for many generations. In doing so, the hope is to maintain the social fabric and the economic vibrancy of the area for everyone.


Wally Orzechowski, Executive Director

Southwest Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP)


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