Peel a few layers off a big onion and in no time it looks a lot different. Your perception of it changes.

And helping to change the perception of rural America is University of Minnesota Extension numbers guru Ben Winchester, a recent guest speaker at the NICC Dairy Center.

Winchester brushes off the tired and oft-repeated narrative that so many towns in rural Iowa and other Midwestern states are dying. Instead, he talks about the numerous people who have made the move over the past few decades from metropolitan areas to rural. He calls his work "Continuing the Trend: The Brain Gain of the Newcomers."

Winchester insists that rural towns are changing, not dying. He said in his native Minnesota, for example, only three towns have ceased existing in the past 70 years.

A statistician who looks beyond obvious numbers, Winchester said stats show that the number of people living in rural areas has actually increased since the 1970s. But that upsurge is overlooked by the fact that populations in urban areas have increased at higher rates than those in rural areas.

There is no question that, across the board, rural areas are losing significant numbers of folks in the 18-25 age group.

"It's the rule that young people move to pursue educational and career goals, not the exception," he said. But the story doesn't end there, Winchester insists. "Instead of labeling that loss as 'doom and gloom' for rural, I've examined the population trends more deeply."

That deeper examination shows that since the 1990s, more than 2.2 million people nationwide have moved from the city to the country.

"You're losing some people and you're gaining some people," he said.

So what did Winneshiek County gain?

Winneshiek actually gained population in the 20-24 age group during the 2000-10 timeframe. But that can easily be explained by student population growth at Luther College. Although the county lost population in both the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups, the rest is pretty good news. Winneshiek County gained in the 35-39, 40-44 and the 44-49 age groups.

So why are people moving here once they get past 30 or so?

Winchester said there are three main reasons - slower pace of life; safety and security; and lower cost of housing.

"Quality of life is the trump card," he said of a small town's ability to attract newcomers or to get those who once lived in a town to return.

Who are these people who move back?

Research from rural states such as Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska shows that 36 percent of those moving to small towns lived there previously; 68 percent have at least a bachelor's degree; 67 percent have incomes north of $50,000; and 51 percent have children in the home.

And these newcomers are not overly dependent on the job market of the town they have moved to because they start their own businesses at rates "far exceeding" the average, Winchester said.

"There is a national societal preference to living in a rural area after the age of 30," he says, adding that planners need to focus more on non-agriculture concerns in rural areas because "95 percent who live in rural places don't have anything to do with agriculture."

Winchester, whose visit was sponsored by the Northeast Iowa Business Network, Northeast Iowa Community College and ITC Midwest, said communities successful in attracting newcomers do so more because of what's not there than what is. In other words, towns without a major negative will be far more successful than comparable towns that have a lot of amenities but also a major negative.

So what can towns do to attract newcomers?

Winchester said communities should take the following steps:

• Make certain that their websites are friendly for potential residents

• That those who do come into a community are made to feel welcome

• That real estate agents are surveyed frequently to learn about reasons newcomers are citing for moving into a community

• Encourage telecommuting to jobs in a city while living in a rural area because studies show telecommuting increases efficiency by as much as 30%

• Stress succession planning so older business owners can pass on their businesses to younger ones

Winchester cited a Pew Research Center poll that showed 51 percent of people in America today prefer to live in either a small town or a rural area.

"Not everyone is leaving small towns," he concluded.