The Wormfarm Institute: Starting Seed and Taking Root in Rural Wisconsin

[Editor’s Note: This article is the continuation of The State of the Rural Arts series– reflections, interviews, features, and online installations that seek to articulate historical context while also expanding our common understanding of who, and what, constitutes “the rural arts” in contemporary America. These investigations sprung from the imperatives of The Rural Arts and Culture Working Group.

All direct quotes, italicized below, are attributed to Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas, taken from a transcribed interview conversation between Neuwirth, Salinas, and Savannah Barrett that took place on February 18, 2013. All photos courtesy of The Wormfarm Institute]

By Savannah Barrett

The Wormfarm Institute in rural Sauk County, Wisconsin has been in the business of cross-fertilizing creativity and agriculture since 1993 as an “evolving laboratory of art and ecology”. City born, the farm’s proprietors Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth explain that while some folks are born rural, others achieve rural, and Jay and Donna are proudly among the converted. “Our work derives from its rural roots. The mission to integrate culture and agriculture explicitly links farming and food production to creativity and art. It also recognizes the word ‘culture’ is embedded in agriculture and ways of deriving our livings from it.” In 2013, Jay and Donna were awarded the Distinguished Service to Rural Life Award by the Rural Sociological Society, which recognizes folks around the United States who have made an outstanding contribution to the enhancement of rural life and rural people.

Donna and Jay started a Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) in 1995, began their artists-in-residence program in 1998, and formally established nonprofit status in 2000. Despite two decades of co-mingling art and agriculture, they didn’t move to Sauk County with a clear plan: “We did what all people do when settling in a new place – we bring with us things that make that place home.” As they explained, in the first few years they were “pushed by the grey (of the city) and pulled by the green (of the farm).” As a result, they savored their first few years immersed in agriculture before fully realizing what would become the Wormfarm Institute : “As we settled in we were looking to help shape the type of community we wanted to live in. One that included, art, literature, performance, surprises.”

Over twenty years, the Wormfarm Institute has produced a wide-range of cultural programming uniquely designed to engage both rural and urban participants while addressing art and agriculture simultaneously. As their foundational program, the artist-residency is non-traditional because they invite artists to “engage in the life of a working farm” rather than in a retreat-focused environment. Donna explained that she and Jay’s personal work had evolved similarly “away from studio practice towards active engagement with the living world”.

IMG_1870

In 2006, the Wormfarm was one of five Wisconsin arts organizations selected by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Gard Foundation to participate in Putting Culture Back into Agriculture, a grant-funded program associated with the university Cooperative Extension Service’s history of providing arts programs to rural Wisconsinites. Wormfarm created a program called : Home Grown Culture – farmers,  artists and writers – an experiment in cross fertilization, and it invited creators (artists) and producers (farmers) to convene over a series of locally-sourced “progressive dinners”. “We were exploring the commonalities between making art and growing food and searching for opportunities to collaborate more across disciplines.”

This project eventually led to the launching of the annual Fermentation Festival. In 2010, the Wormfarm was selected by the Wisconsin Humanities Council to host “Key Ingredients: America by Food” as a result of the strength of complimentary programming the Wormfarm could provide. As such, this Smithsonian travelling exhibition showcased not only an educational exhibit about the development of farming in the United States, but was made local and personal to Reedsburg through the foodways, food stories, and cultural content added by the Wormfarm to reflect their local culture. This event spurred enough community excitement to result in Fermentation Fest – A Live Culture Convergence. The Wormfarm method, like agriculture, seems to be a process of evolution, growth, harvest, decay, and regeneration: “Everything sort of grows out of the thing that happened before. The fertile soil that is left behind after you do a creative project makes the next thing easier to launch.”

Having just closed its third year, Fermentation Fest brings together farmers, chefs, artists, poets, and cheese makers to offer tastings, demonstrations, classes, events, seminars, farm tours, and the Farm/Art DTour, a popular fifty-mile tour of art installations, Roadside Culture Stands, pasture performances and rural culture education sites throughout the backroads of Sauk County. Wisconsin is a state famous for fermentation, of cheese, yogurt, beer, sourdough bread, and sauerkraut, but fit particularly well in the context of intersecting art and agriculture: “It’s just such a rich metaphor for an ongoing event because fermentation is about transformation. So not only grain to beer or milk to yogurt, but from one kind of community to another.”

Jay and Donna credit this realization in part to their experiences with the rural residents of Sauk County: “We discovered this late as former city people, that when things rot they give rise to new life, Rural people are closer to that understanding and know these things in ways that city people don’t. So it’s in essence revaluing the wisdom of people who live closer to the land.”

IMG_1869

Many of the Wormfarm resident artists and visiting collaborators bring their own urban experiences to this rural community. As such, Wormfarm programming is enabling an exchange of values and shared experiences between rural and urban culture. “We saw immediately the benefits of the urban-rural connection by having city people visit the farm, who were mostly if not artists at least creative types who were very inspired by rural Wisconsin.”

With their own Chicago art experiences in mind, the tension and value exchange of rural and urban are present across Jay and Donna’s work: “It had to do with the exchange. We knew we had something of great value to urban artists, and we knew that because that’s what we had been. And we also came to know it was of great value to rural residents to have this sort of stimulus and an outside perspective verifying value often taken for granted”.”

While Jay and Donna’s work intersects with the community, they consider their past as urbanites to be a benefit to their rural arts work: “There are certain things that have to come in from the outside, that have to be introduced, to act as the starter culture.

Wisconsin is not dissimilar to other rural places in its dwindling population of young people. “Wisconsin is one of the most departed states, people are leaving in droves. Yet, this may be a great time for that to change. The local food movement and rapid rise in organic farming has brought not only a new generation into food production but a reconsideration of the role of farmer and a huge urban population looking for authentic experiences, lost vital skills and a closer connection to source of their food.”

Wormfarm is offering an opportunity to young people who want to stay or even relocate to rural WI. As an example, a woman who came years ago as a resident artist has returned annually.

“First she came back as residency manager, then for her own community-based projects funded through Wormfarm, then she was hired to assist with some our larger projects and now she has settled here. She’s opened a storefront studio/ classroom downtown and has made herself a part of the community.” Another former resident artist lives in a nearby town and a young artist whose work was shown years ago at the Woolen Mill Gallery has stayed and developed a following as a talented and prolific plein air painter. “You need smart young people to attract smart young people.”

IMG_1861

While Jay and Donna proudly acknowledge their roles as misfit farmer/artists in their small community, they also display a deep interest and passion for the development and recognition of the rural arts field across this country. They are among those who gathered a summer ago for the inaugural National Rural Assembly Rural Arts and Culture Working Group meeting. As they explained: “We are currently benefitting by a realization on the national level of the importance of community based arts. Not only as program for the children or support for the visiting orchestra and ballet, but as a critical tool for economic, cultural and community development.”

Donna and Jay see this development as a long time in the making. About fifteen years ago they heard John Ikerd talk of the coming of the Rural Renaissance. This experience helped to root a shift in mindset for the Wormfarm, as it solidified their instinct that rural sustainability is not only about thriving agricultural production, but about vital and diverse cultural communities.

Often in rural arts, practitioners emphasize the importance of responding to needs expressed by their communities. The Wormfarm Institute’s approach is of interest to me precisely because they began doing this work to fulfill a personal mission rather than an identified community need: “It’s not because we acted on what people wanted or what the community needed, and we never presumed to do that… The community shapes us and we are shaping it. It’s a dynamic conversation that is taking place in real time, right now… The outlier performs an important function in the community. It’s the creative irritant that makes a pearl.” While some organizations arise from a community’s desire for them to be, others derive their purpose from the vision of individuals who see their contribution to the community as derivative of the fulfillment of their own purpose.

The nationally recognized Wormfarm Institute consistently demonstrates that the catalyst for thriving rural arts culture is distinct to the environment in which it was cultivated. Jay and Donna’s effective combination of community mindedness and rugged individualism reminds us there is no silver bullet for flourishing arts environments in small communities. The Wormfarm Institute urges us to consider that the rural community arts field will thrive more productively from polyculture than monoculture, and that while some seeds grow hearty in close proximity to others, others need their own space to flourish.