“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 to reach thousands of people – and to do what art alone can do: inspire and open doors to new ways of seeing.”
– Donna Neuwirth, co-founder of Wormfarm Institute
Nestled among the rolling hills of the unglaciated region of south central Wisconsin you’ll find the Wormfarm Institute, a 40-acre organic vegetable farm and creative hub that is winning applause for reconnecting the link between “agri-culture.”
Founded in 2000 by farmers/artists Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth, the non-profit has created a number of innovative programs, from hand-crafted Roadside Culture Stands in inner-city food deserts to an active artist-in-residence program, where participants work for room and board at the farm.
The annual Fermentation Fest is a popular fall event with classes and lectures on making the harvest last into winter, including tips for homemade yogurt, pickles and craft beer. The star of the festival may be the Farm/Art DTour, which is a 50-mile self-guided backroads tour by car, bike or buggy through picturesque farmland and site-responsive art installations. In fact, this creative program has received three National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) “Our Town” awards.
To get a better grasp of what’s happening up in Sauk County, Wisconsin, we spoke recently with the founders about farming, art and more…
Q) Why did you start the Wormfarm Institute? What was the motivating factor?
I’d have to say enlightened self-interest was the predominant motivating factor.
Jay and I (co-founders) were still new farmers after five years of operating The NeuErth Wormfarm, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. We were full of enthusiasm and still learning, staying one step ahead of our mostly Chicago shareholders. We also were artists and saw many parallels between farming and artmaking, as our concept of what art is and does slowly shifted from the studio and the stage to the places where we invested our curiosity, sweat and imagination.
Our mostly artist friends came to visit and were inevitably put to work, which they loved. This was the beginning of what would become an artist-in-residency program and the formation of Wormfarm Institute. We felt the enormous potential of what can happen at the fertile intersection of art and farming, and wanted in a small way to institutionalize its importance and its vital role in rethinking thriving rural communities.
Through the residency each growing season, we welcomed artists and writers to engage in the life of a working farm. Over time this led to other projects, always at that fertile intersection and in lively conversation along the rural/ urban continuum.
As former disconnected urban people we learned about the life in the soil, the complex interconnected ecosystem on which all of our lives depend, by teaching ourselves how to grow food. Though a lot came from books, workshops and mentoring, it was the immersion in the process that both fed us and pulled us into caring deeply. With Fermentation Fest we celebrate an ancient process that takes the abundance of the season – cabbage, barley, potatoes, milk – and through harnessing natural process of decay, makes it last.
Q) Why do you think farmers and artists are natural partners?
Natural partners may be a stretch, but there is much common ground for cultivation.
Donna and I were both trained in formal art practices (theater and sculpture) before we came to farming. As we began learning how to grow food, we found it required mastery of an evolving body of knowledge, timely hands-on application, critical thinking and creative problem solving – essentially the same things that artmaking required.
About 10 years ago (after growing for 10 years) we were asked to undertake a project that explored the commonalities between farmers and artists – or producers and creators. Through a series of dinners and discussions we found a number of parallels, ranging from the individualistic nature of the practitioners to the frequent necessity of a day job to sustain the vocation.
There is also a parallel in the diminishing awareness (and perceived relevance?) of each field, beginning in the mid 20th century, as each became more specialized and was practiced by a smaller percentage of the population.
This is a huge issue and one we believe might be reversed by encouraging strategic alliances between artists and farmers. Artists are inspired by the quotidian miracle of growing food. Agriculture is universal and permanently important with enough sex, death and religion to inspire provocative compelling and engaging works of art in all media.
Remember, the word culture comes from the Latin cultura, meaning to till the soil. Farming is deeply cultural, and it is only in recent decades that distance and ignorance have allowed most people not to think about it.
Q) Talk to us about “culturesheds.” Why are they important?
In 1998 Jay coined the term “cultureshed.”
Cultureshed – noun. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3. The efforts of writers, performers, artists, scholars, farmers and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.
The term conveys the belief that an authentic, compelling culture arises from a particular place. Wormfarm expands the concept of community-supported agriculture—which reconnects consumers with the source of their food—by connecting urban and rural, people and land, culture and agriculture. It extends the notion of sustainability to include not just nourishment to live, but a vibrant, creative community in which to thrive.
Watersheds are geographic regions linked by their surface waters, and we understand why it is critical to preserve them. In sustainable agriculture the term “foodshed” was coined by a UW- Madison professor to describe a region that seeks to become nutritionally self-sufficient. The wisdom of reducing dependence upon distant, industrialized food chains is daily becoming more evident.
One of the important lessons from the Great Recession is the hazard of ceding control to entities untethered to place and unresponsive to the consequences of their actions in our local communities. Cultureshed seeks to counterbalance this seemingly inevitable trend by being attuned to creative expression that is rooted in and responsive to local conditions.
Q) How are your programs helping people to connect more closely with those who grow their food?
Through our programs, Wormfarm works to amplify existing agri/cultural assets and create dynamic new relationships across diverse sectors.
Farmers, artists, writers, conservationists and educators, through their varied perspectives and abilities, contribute to a thriving rural culture. This 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 artist, expanding both the reach of and the appetite for the arts, Wormfarm increases relationships and 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.
We find ourselves at a moment in time when rural places are being reconsidered and revalued. Interest in sustainable and local food systems has proven to be more than a passing fashion. Urbanites and suburbanites are hungry to deepen their connection to the land, and new media and technology have helped in breaking down rural isolation.
Across disciplines and geographies, we are part of a growing movement creating a new narrative of rural experience. Our rural communities are diverse and resourceful, local and yet connected to cities and across oceans. They occupy a place at the center of a narrative concerned with sustainability in all its forms.
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 to reach thousands of people – and to do what art alone can do: inspire and open doors to new ways of seeing.
Q) What concerns you most about the food system? What inspires you?
Anonymity can hide a multitude of sins. Farmers who raise families on the land are invested in the land’s continual health. Eighty percent of what a farmer grows goes to an urban plate (or gas tank or closet). So, the futures of food and of rural agricultural areas are essentially in the hands of urban eaters and national policy. Wormfarm programs look to deepen curiosity and sensual pleasure – creating an enriched learning environment and a path toward caring.
All realizations are personal. That is why we created a format that we hope will stimulate curiosity and wonder. If we do that in and among working farms, connections are deepened through the multisensory experience of being there.
There is little argument about the deficiencies and inequities of the current food production and delivery systems. There are plenty of them out there, including the dangers of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), overuse of antibiotics, degradation of land and water, exploitation of farm labor, food-borne illnesses, linked scourges of obesity and malnutrition, etc. etc. But now one must choose to be ignorant of these threats. We have become far less accepting of the status quo and less willing to shut up and eat what’s put in front of us.
Food is fundamental and is unique in its capacity to effect social and cultural development. It is inspiring to see the huge range of initiatives developed to improve and empower individuals and communities through the food system.
In communities most negatively impacted by food injustice, there are numerous examples of individuals and groups engaged in community gardens, urban agriculture, CSAs, TSA’s (tribal supported agricultural) and world-wide food sovereignty movements.
I have been fortunate to do extensive work in this realm. I find it populated by hard-working, dedicated, sincere individuals, who are clear-eyed about the obstacles and prepared for the long campaign and realistic about the struggle ahead. But they are always ready to take the time to share the bounty in the spirit of conviviality.
Q) Is there anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t discussed?
I would like to underscore the importance of thinking across the rural-urban continuum. I urge organizations concerned with land, food, culture and thriving communities to pay attention to both urban and rural contributions and extractions as key to a healthy regional ecosystem.
This may be best accomplished by strengthening cross sector partnerships and getting creative about engagement.
Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with your programs.
You might also like:
Lisa Kivirist: Wisconsin writer, farmer, activist
Valerie Segrest of Muckleshoot tribe on food sovereignty
Traci Bruckner of Center for Rural Affairs