Cultivating Art, Agriculture, and Impact in Sauk County |
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Cultivating Art, Agriculture, and Impact in Sauk County

Sarah FitzSimons’ Field Sketch was a striking installation in the 2018 Wormfarm Institute’s Farm/Art DTour. Photo by Sarah FitzSimons

Art and agriculture aren’t usually thought of together. Typically, they’re seen as separate as the urban and rural environments with which they’re often associated. But art and agriculture each produce fruit that sustains and enriches community. And a project begun in Sauk County in 2011 showcases both.

The Farm/Art DTour is a ten-day, fifty-mile, self-guided driving route laid out every other October that draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the Midwest to the edge of Wisconsin’s Driftless Region.

The tour meanders through rolling farmland and includes stops where visitors take in site-specific sculpture installations and pasture performances. Artist-built “roadside culture stands” are also set up, and eclectic restaurants, taverns, farm stands, and businesses dot the route, offering refreshments and a chance to take home fresh produce, locally made food, and crafts.

The driving tour offers artist- and community-led civic engagement that draws attention to Wisconsin’s unique agricultural landscape and affirms the commonalities and interdependence of the so-called red and blue spheres in American life.

There is much more going on here than a quirky country drive, and the area enjoys lasting impacts from the interdisciplinary event.

Planting the Seeds of Creativity

The Farm/Art DTour is the brainchild of the Wormfarm Institute, founded in 2000 by artist/farmers Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas. What began as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) vegetable farm in the town of Reedsburg grew into a nonprofit that works to build a sustainable future for agriculture and the arts.

Wormfarm’s public-facing activities include the biennial DTour,

Fermentation Fest, and Test Plots—nimble projects used to explore new collaborations for future DTours. Test Plots take their name from the designated parts of a field where farmers experiment with new crops and techniques. Meanwhile, CSA farming continues, and Wormfarm hosts artists-in-residence throughout the growing season.

The DTour began in 2011 as an annual event, then in 2016 moved to every other year. From 2011 to 2018, the route looped through northern and then central Sauk County. In 2020 and 2022, the DTour followed a new route to the south. Different routes are selected every three years to spread the economic impact and opportunity for collaboration within the county.

Planning the DTour is a complex process, one that reflects the ideas, values, and cultural ambitions of its organizers in ways that have won the respect of participating artists and national funders. Wormfarm handles calling for submissions, jurying the proposals, and matching the selected artists with landowners. The steering committee helps with on-the-ground logistics and community relations. Hundreds of volunteers are involved over the two-year planning cycle, and dozens of businesses contribute material and financial support.

Setting the Table

As Salinas and Neuwirth’s involvement in Sauk County grew, Salinas coined the term cultureshed to represent their burgeoning concept. Leaning on the ideas of a watershed and a foodshed, a cultureshed is “an area nourished by what is cultivated locally” with the broadest possible understanding of “cultivate.”

Stakeholders in the cultureshed through which the DTour passes include farmers and other landowners, artists, residents, nonprofit organizations, and urbanites eager to build bridges between the rural experience and their own arts and culture. They find common cause in their desire for healthy places with sustainable land use and thriving livelihoods for local producers and consumers.

“Wormfarm sets the table by bringing all these interests together,” says Philip Matthews, Wormfarm’s director of programs.

Dale Jaedike, a member of the 2022 DTour steering committee, is the sixth generation of his family to steward land in Sauk County. He hosted artwork on his farm in 2020 and 2022 and appreciates the synergy the DTour creates between landowners, artists, and visitors.

“These artists are designing their work for a specific site, letting it influence their creative process,” he says. “It’s nice to give people an opportunity to come out and see the landscape, appreciate the art, get to know the artists in some cases, and interact with the residents. It’s synergistic.”

Sara Daleiden, an artist and founder of MKE<->LAX, an initiative with twin bases in Milwaukee and Los Angeles, experienced that synergy on an early visit to the DTour.

“The tour always feels very cinematic to me,” she says. “You’re in this autumn landscape, the rolling hills, the moving car—it’s more than the actual stops. It’s the restaurants and shops on the main streets of the towns, the weather, the landowners and the art installations, the roadside culture stands with vendors. They’re all celebrating the creative and cultural economy.”

Artistic Collaboration Done Right

Rural places can often seem on the periphery of the art world, so doing things differently comes naturally when you are so far from the urban centers of artistic influence. The Farm/Art DTour is an unusually collaborative process, rooted in the uniquely local, creating an example of ethical power-sharing and respect for creators.

For artists, an important distinction between the DTour and other public arts initiatives is in its process of selecting and commissioning the artwork.

A national call for proposals goes out in the December preceding the tour. The request for proposals is open to both formally trained and self-taught artists. Proposals are reviewed by a jury and selected through a two-step process.

Applicants first submit a preliminary project concept. Up to fifteen finalists are invited to attend a two-day orientation in Sauk County, travel the DTour, and meet landowners. With a stipend, the finalists develop a full site-responsive proposal for a second round of jury review. From that group, up to ten artists are selected. They receive funding ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 to realize their installation.

“It’s great to only have to do a preliminary ideation, and then to actually get support to develop your proposal further,” says Austen Camille, an interdisciplinary artist whose work appeared on the 2022 tour. “Often, as a person working in public art, you are asked to develop everything, put it all on the table upfront, and hope for the best. Finding organizations that treat artists ethically as workers is a rarity. Wormfarm does a good job of democratizing the art process.”

Camille first came to Wormfarm as an artist in residence in 2015. “You garden, alone with your thoughts, and your thinking starts to revolve around the land,” she recalls of her experience. “You go to your studio and distill that into something. Then you sit down to dinner with the other artists, eat glorious food that you’ve grown, and talk. It feels cyclical and holistic.”

The next year, Camille interned on the DTour. “I loved being a part of that process from the organizational side, connecting with the farmers, learning the landscape, speaking to people on the route, and getting to know the artists who were being brought in,” she says. Her interactive installation, When the Cows Arrived by Boat, Passenger Pigeons Still Traveled the Skies, for the 2022 tour was inspired by the relationship she’d formed with the landscape itself.

Flexibility is essential in such a multi-sided collaboration: While Camille’s piece had been designed for a specific site, with cut-outs intended to align with views of specific bluffs, at the last minute that site fell through. Overnight, landowner Dale Fingerhut, who had participated in the 2020 DTour, agreed to host the installation on his farm, and Camille and Fingerhut became lasting friends through the experience.

Sarah FitzSimons is an artist who combines sculpture, photography, and video in her work. She teaches sculpture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she often requires students in her sculpture and installation class to visit the DTour and write a review of it afterward. A DTour artist in 2018, FitzSimons also has participated in similar temporary, site-specific art events, mostly in Europe, where state and local funding for tourism often helps underwrite the costs.

“This is not a show that travels from one museum to another. It’s non-commercial; the work is not for sale,” she says of the DTour. “This is rooted in the local, and I think there is something valuable there, especially in this era of giant biennials where the work travels around the world. Here, it’s a different type of density than going to a museum and seeing one piece after another.”

Several years after her turn as an artist, FitzSimons was invited to be a juror. Her experience with DTour’s outdoor installations helped her curate proposals that were feasible for the Wisconsin landscape. And she agrees that the application process sets the DTour apart from most group show processes.

“Even the artists who aren’t ultimately chosen have still gotten a valuable experience, which is getting your expenses paid to visit the area and to meet the other artists,” she says. “Wormfarm wants it to have value for everyone involved, and I definitely appreciate that.”

Demonstrating a Thriving Agricultural Future

One of the larger goals of the Farm/Art DTour is to raise awareness about the rural environment in which it takes place. Key to this goal is Wormfarm’s new collaborator, the Savanna Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization working to advance agroforestry in the Midwest. Environmental sustainability is the common ground on which the two organizations meet.

“Agroforestry requires us to think differently,” says Jacob Grace, communications project manager for the Savanna Institute, which recently purchased four farms near Spring Green to develop as demonstration sites. Agroforestry is an intensive system that combines the growing of fruit and nut trees or shrubs, and even timber crops, with production of pasture, livestock, and often annual row crops.

Wormfarm has provided a warm welcome through connections with the Sauk County community. “I appreciate that Wormfarm is making an effort to do projects that aren’t just interesting to people driving in from outside the county, but also interesting to people who are neighbors,” says Grace, adding that many of them are multigenerational family farmers.

Sauk County agriculture features a mix of conventional farming and innovative approaches like agroforestry. The DTour collaborates with landowners from all perspectives; Wormfarm is neutral in stance.

“We’re not judging one form of farming versus another,” says Wormfarm’s Matthews. “All of this exists in this county. The DTour invites visitors to consider the full picture, then asks—what do you make of it?”

“Most of the landowners in this area have been here for generations,” Jaedike observes. Regardless of their current approach to farming, “they have the mindset of good stewardship. The DTour showcases our efforts to see that it’s here for the future.”

Dan Enge grew up on a farm on Highway C in Sauk County. Now, he and his wife Jacque provide fresh produce to the community through their end-of-driveway farm stand and at area farmers’ markets. Their family’s twelve-hundred-acre farm is also a working dairy farm, milking about six hundred cows and employing over a dozen people.

“We like vegetable farming,” Jacque Enge says, “but we know that someday, we’re not going to want to spend our summers bending over the gardens.” The Enges are planting nut and fruit trees that will help them transition to a more perennial, regenerative approach to farming through crop species that live longer than two years without the need for replanting. They believe their approach will be healthier for the land and provide a better lifestyle for the farmer.

“To my mind, the Enges represent a pivot point, with one foot in the present and one in the future,” says Matthews.

As part of the 2022 DTour, Dan and Jacque Enge hosted a symposium in which they shared their enthusiasm for growing fruit- and nut-producing trees. The event had a larger goal beyond demonstrating agroforestry. Dan Enge was a member of a working group for the 2022 tour, which addressed how to help offset the environmental impact of auto traffic generated by the tour. They decided to integrate information about carbon sequestration into the program. “It’s not like our tree planting completely offset all those cars’ fossil fuel exhaust, but it gave us a chance to educate,” he says.

And the DTour has shown that the rural environment is itself a “work of art” that is as important as the temporary installations, and it’s sparked an exciting ripple effect across the area.

“Over the years, the temporary has led to the permanent,” says Matthews. “The DTour has led to the creation of a new public art park, a winery, a pickle shop, the Hill & Valley Exploration Tour, and other assets that invigorate this rural place.”

Driving Economic Impact

When visitors ponder the economics underlying the Farm/Art DTour experience, the questions arise: What are the costs and benefits to people who own a piece of the cultureshed? Are the farmers and businesspeople seeing a lasting impact? The village of Plain offers a partial answer.

Plain, with a population of about eight hundred, has been a trailhead for the DTour since 2020. Ray Ring, who returned after a corporate career to raise his young family in his hometown, has served as village president since 2011. “I look for ways to make a small community like Plain thrive versus just survive,” he says.

Ring was delighted when the DTour route shifted to include Plain. The village’s Strassenfest, a street festival showcasing local businesses, takes place in the first week of October, overlapping with the DTour. “It gives people coming to the tour a look at what the village has to offer,” he says.

Plain is also home to Kraemer Brothers, a commercial construction company that has been a thriving business anchor for more than seventy-five years. Kraemer North America grew out of that company to become a large-scale civil works contractor with operations in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington. General Engineering, an engineering and architectural services firm, is another major local company.

“We’re fortunate to have large companies here that are philanthropic,” Ring says. “They’re willing to help with projects the village wants to do,” including playing crucial supporting roles in the DTour.

As president and civic booster, Ring was essential in building excitement and buy-in for The Giant Farmer of Plain, one of the most popular art installations of the 2022 tour.

The bones of the idea came from a seventeen-foot walking skeleton that sculptor Christopher Lutter-Gardella had activated during the 2020 tour: Suspended from an extendable forklift provided by Kraemer Brothers, the artist and a team of professional puppeteers animated the skeleton from the ground via a system of ropes and pulleys.

When Lutter-Gardella and Wormfarm approached the leadership of Plain to host a community-built artwork in 2022, the committee remembered the skeleton performance and liked the idea of a new giant puppet being built.

“A farmer just made sense,” Ring recalls, “and building it gave a flavor of the importance of the construction businesses here.”

During a year-long collaboration with Wormfarm and the village, Lutter-Gardella, who refers to himself as a “designer, sculptor, theater-maker, and community educator,” worked with Kraemer Brothers carpenters and metal fabricators to create the spectacular twenty-foot homage to farmers. Ring estimates that over three thousand visitors attended the puppet’s performances.

After the tour ended, rather than see the puppet dismantled, Ring arranged to have it become the property of the village. Ring approached General Engineering to design an Adirondack chair for the farmer, and Kraemer North America manufactured it. Now the giant farmer sits at the entry to the village on Highway 23.

And Plain isn’t the only community benefitting from the DTour. Positive effects are broadly distributed, bringing money and attention into the rural villages and towns along the route. Many farmers see increased sales at their roadside produce stands, as do local restaurants, businesses, and inns. The impact even reaches urban centers as well.

Since 2015, Rural Urban FLOW, which celebrates the interwoven roles that artists, farmers, advocates, and other creators play in sustainable land stewardship, has arranged to bring groups of people from Milwaukee to the DTour.

“It took a very specific invitation to entice urban dwellers to come see what the tour was about,” says organizer Sara Daleiden. “We had people on that bus of all different ages, races, ethnicities, genders—artists, farmers, small business owners, and other creative leaders. The visit to the DTour is an example of the land exchanges that are a core value of Rural Urban FLOW.”

More recently, the group has piloted a Milwaukee version of the DTour, and plans are in the works for bringing rural members of the FLOW network from Sauk County to the Milwaukee tour.

Synergy Feeds Rural Vitality

The Farm/Art DTour was conceived as a celebratory free public event that would engage visitors with the landscape and the people in it. Collaborators hope that increased awareness of the synergy among what is cultivated locally, from temporary art installations to perennial farming, will result in sustained positive change.

Visitors come out to see art but find themselves engaged in a more far-reaching conversation. Not only do they enjoy encounters with thought-enriching sculptures in a scenic landscape, but they also gain an appreciation for an agricultural economy negotiating the juncture between tradition and innovation.

Wormfarm Institute hopes that by enriching the cultureshed with excursions like the Farm/Art DTour, and spreading their impact through Rural Urban FLOW, Wisconsinites from across the urban/rural continuum will find inspiration and connection.

“Just come and see,” says Matthews. “Bring your curiosity and an open mind.”



Sarah E. White is a freelance writer and personal historian. She helps people write about their lives and work from her home base in Madison.


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