“Art amplifies what landscape quietly asserts” - Max Garland, Wisconsin poet laureate, 2014
Every fertile grain of soil, according to Charles Darwin, has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm. These literally subversive creatures have inspired cofounders Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas to explore what it takes to create a fertile environment - both in the dirt and in the arts. Formed in 2000 as an artist residency program located on a working farm, the Wormfarm Institute has expanded programs regionally to connect urban and rural, people and land, culture and agriculture.
Fermentation Fest – A Live Culture Convergence is the most high-profile project. Each October this rural farming community celebrates live culture in all its forms from dance to yogurt, poetry to sauerkraut. Its signature feature is the Farm/Art DTour a 50-mile self-guided drive through scenic working farmlands of Sauk County, WI, punctuated with temporary art installations, pasture performances, roadside poetry and more. It draws thousands from both urban and rural areas to take a fresh look at farmland and see what else might be growing.
“Fermentation is about abundance and transformation” says Executive Director Neuwirth “ from grain to beer, milk to cheese, cabbage to kimchi - we take the season’s abundance and through a series of timely actions, ancient wisdom and natural processes, make it last. It’s also a rich metaphor for community transformation.”
Community support has been broad and deep with county government, chambers of commerce, agriculture, tourism and economic development all playing significant roles. The small towns that the DTour passes though can’t ignore the economic impact and new arts organizations have formed.
Co-founder Salinas adds “Fermentation Fest is an ambitious project. It has only been possible because we’ve been building fertility slowly over many years. The work began, and continues with our artist residency program. Every year we witness artists experience the parallels between making art and growing food, and how involvement in one feeds the other.”
Along the 50 mile DTour, art amplifies existing assets and creates dynamic new relationships across diverse sectors. Farmers, artists, writers, conservationists, chefs, and educators through their varied perspectives and abilities contribute to a thriving rural culture that inspires more cultural activity, attracts travelers, draws new residents, provides economic growth, builds pride of place, and serves as a model for other rural communities. By revaluing the role of the farmer and the artist, expanding both the reach of and the appetite for the arts, Fermentation Fest increases collaboration across sectors. This polycultural approach can raise the profile and the allure of agricultural regions as places where important work is done, where creativity can and does flourish, and where livings - in the truest sense - can be made.
Neuwirth elaborates: “We find ourselves at a moment in time when rural places are being reconsidered and revalued. Interest in sustainable and local food is growing quickly. Urban folks are hungry to deepen their connection to the land and technology has helped break down rural isolation. Across disciplines and geographies, we are part of a growing movement creating a new narrative of rural experience.
Rural America is undergoing a period of dramatic cultural and demographic change. Such developments call for our attention and creative action. For thousands of years farmers in cultures around the world interwove dance, music, and art through rituals of planting and the harvest in celebration of the land and those who care for it. Our hybrid projects present an opportunity reach thousands of people – and to do what art alone can do - inspire and open doors to new ways of seeing.”
Photo: Too Much Pig by Brian Sobaski photo by Kartin Talbot