By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Aug 10, 2008 at 5:25 AM
A Wisconsin town has made the Mother Earth News list of "Nine Great Places You've Never Heard Of."

Viroqua, the county seat of Vernon County in the southwest part of the state, made the list in the August-September issue.

The article states, "The tiny town of Viroqua, Wis., 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."

The Mother Earth News article cites the local food co-op as just one example of maintaining a quality 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 arms 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."

Vernon County is a hotbed for organic farming. Organic Valley has become the largest dairy coop in the country. Mother Earth News noted the organic influence:

"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 article does mention the threat posed to small businesses when Wal-Mart moved into town a couple decades ago.

"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."

I am well aware of Viroqua, since I maintain my fulltime home in Vernon County. The unique elements of the town and area do not stop with organics. Co-ops are a way of life here, including the electric company, phone and many other services. The area also is becoming a hotbed for alternative energy, from wind to biodiesel.

Viroqua has had several alternative schools run by parents of the kids who attend them. It also is a center for many homeopathic and alternative medical approaches.

Artisans, musicians, writers and other creative people have come to the area in recent years to practice their arts and crafts.

The surrounding Driftless Area is one of the most beautiful in the Midwest. It's encapsulated by hikes through the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and Wildcat Mountain State Park, both of which have been documented on over the years.

Other cities making this year's Mother Earth News list are: Ames, Iowa; Berea, Ky.; Bethel, Maine; Bisbee, Ariz.; Greenbelt, Md.; Moscow, Idaho; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and Traverse City, Mich.

Launched in 1970, the bi-monthly Mother Earth News features information to save money, cut energy costs, use renewable energy, garden organically and build green homes.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.