As Donna Neuwirth sees it, the recent economic downturn has created an opportunity for Wisconsinites to re-imagine our relationship with food and entertainment. “We’re in an interesting time when we have to do more for ourselves,” says Neuwirth, Executive Director of Wormfarm Instititute, located near Reedsburg. “I think that we have to use what’s at hand and … the assets around us, and not think about food and entertainment coming from far away.”
Wormfarm was founded in 1995 by Neuwirth and Jay Salinas as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) organization to grew organic vegetables for a handful of Chicago families hungry for a connection to the source of their food. Today Wormfarm Institute is a nonprofit that works to build a sustainable future for agriculture and the arts by fostering vital links between people and the land.
Fermentation Fest, Wormfarm’s biggest project to date, makes a compelling case for supporting produce from local farms, markets, and backyards, as well as art from local studios. Scheduled for October 12–21 this year, Fermentation Fest is very much a product of today, when self-sufficiency is once again in vogue, in part because of recent economic events and in part because of a local food movement that is growing at a quickening pace.
A process used for preserving food as old as the cultivation of crops, fermentation takes place when live cultures of bacteria or other microorganisms partially break food down, thereby enhancing its flavor and providing a longer shelf life. Beer, for example, is produced when yeast breaks down wort, a liquid made from mashed grains, giving the drink its alcohol content, flavor, and carbonation. Sauerkraut is made by submerging chopped cabbage in a salty brine, which allows beneficial lactobacillus bacteria to grow, adding that tart flavor while suppressing the growth of competing bacteria.
Fermentation Fest celebrates fermentation in both the literal and figurative senses, highlighting some of our favorite fermented foods as well as professional and amateur artists who make up, as Neuwirth puts it, Wisconsin’s “live cultures.” Neuwirth’s goal is to encourage the event’s attendees to engage with both kinds of fermentation—the culinary and the cultural— instead of just one. “Some people may come for the farming and trip over the art, while other people come for the art and trip over the farming,” she says. “As individuals, we’re not just farmers, just artists, just eaters.”
The Fest consists of three components: the Farm/Art DTour, Roadside Culture Stands, and fermentation-focused workshops. The Farm/Art DTour is a fifty-mile, self-guided tour through Reedsburg and the nearby communities of LaValle, Ironton, and Lime Ridge. Along the route, the tour features performances and temporary art installations by professional and amateur artists as well as educational signs made by artists to explain farm-related concepts.
Martha Glowacki, Director of the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery, is in the process of creating two frames from discarded cast-iron farm equipment parts that will frame vistas along the Farm/Art DTour route to “draw attention to, and make special, our rural, agricultural land,” she says. “It’s landscape that really has inspired me, and certainly many artists have been inspired by landscape, so I also want to draw attention to how beautiful this landscape is.”
Positioned along the DTour route, the Fest’s Roadside Culture Stands are produce carts created by local artists. In addition to locally grown produce, each stand exhibits locally produced artwork or books for sale. Wormfarm uses the stands to spread the Fest’s impact throughout the year, as the stands will remain in use as weather permits.
The Fest’s fermentation workshops all take place within walking distance of each other, in downtown Reedsburg, and touch on such subjects as the fermentation process behind chocolate, how to make pickles, and various methods for composting. This year’s Fest features thirty more workshops than did last year’s, as well as a keynote by author and fermentation expert Sandor Katz.
The event was started, Neuwirth says, as an example of “creative place-making,” which is a way of fostering “economic development with arts at its core.” Last year’s Fest demonstrates that the idea works. A post-Fest survey of local businesses along the DTour route indicated that every business that responded had seen an increase in sales during the event compared to the same time a year earlier, and reporters noted that some cafés were so crowded that lines went out the door.
Moreover, the Fest itself looks poised to grow. Last year, it attracted 4,000 attendees, and Neuwirth says Wormfarm’s goal for this year is 7,000. For her, it all comes down to one thing: fostering curiosity. Fermentation Fest attendees “learn all kinds of … wonderful things that we don’t necessarily intend,” she says, a fitting goal for an event that mixes together agriculture and art, patiently awaiting the result.
For more information on Fermentation Fest 2012 and a listing of events, visit fermentationfest.com.