What, besides corn and cows, might you find in farm fields near Reedsburg in October?
A. A woodwind quintet and ballet dancers.
B. A place to paint silage bags.
C. Sock puppets pondering morals and logic.
Hah! The correct answer is all of the above.
When you talk about culture in this part of south central Wisconsin, circus wagons to sauerkraut are timely subjects because of Fermentation Fest in Sauk County.
For 10 days in October, Fermentation Fest celebrates “controlled rot,” as event co-founder Jay Salinas jokingly describes it. You may prefer to think of it as the transformative process of making beer, wine, cheese, pickles, kraut, yogurt or bread.
At least 40 events – such as how-to workshops (covering kombucha to kefir, hard cider to hot sauces) and food-beverage pairings, tastings and tours – will pop up at schools, downtown storefronts, rural roadsides and farm fields.
Farm fields? The annual festival links art with agriculture in ways that its founders would not have expected when moving from Chicago to a 40-acre dairy farm in 1993.
Jay and Donna Neuwirth landed here to raise organic vegetables, sold some of them to their big-city artist friends and soon were adding a “farm experience” to the veggie pick-up.
Their customers “wanted a break from the city and liked being put to work” on the farm, Jay explained, during a workshop at this year’s state tourism conference. Now an artist-in-residence program is offered, too, “and I spend half my time trying to talk them out of it, because managing expectations is important.”
Although he and Donna had little problem engaging artists with agriculture, the opposite was a bigger challenge.
New neighbors “were suspicious – they wondered who we were,” Jay recalls. “We avoided the ‘a’ word” because the area was not known for embracing or investing in the fine arts.
Besides farming, the couple bought a woolen mill and turned it into an art gallery in downtown Reedsburg. They established the Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit initiative that links the arts with agriculture. It also was a way to gain grants to fund their ideas and fuel creative growth in the community.
Some ideas, like a puppet-making workshop – “a free-for-all with scraps and reclaimed materials” – were popular until grants ceased. Jay says city and county governments couldn’t be easily convinced to fund efforts that involve the arts.
Fermentation Fest is changing that attitude, thanks to the mix of practical advice about homespun topics and playful interactions in unconventional settings. This year’s event budget of $243,000 includes county, state and national funding.
“Just as the word ‘culture’ is embedded in agriculture, so is cultural expression itself deeply embedded within our landscapes and our ways of deriving our livings from it,” Donna explains, in a press release.
“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. Through a contemporary approach and within this timeless context, we continue that tradition.”
This is the fourth year for Fermentation Fest. The centerpiece is the Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile and self-guided route through lesser-known communities – such as LaValle, Ironton and Lime Ridge – and naturally beautiful terrain.
Throughout the landscape are many surprises. Commissioned art shows up on farmland, and some landowners add a hay sculpture or something else, to express another view of life. It could be as uncomplicated, but arresting, as mowing one word into a hillside.
Some works are best seen at night because of the creative use of lighting, stained glass or color. Jay says each art installation must highlight the landscape, not compete with it.
Add roadside poetry, concerts in cow pastures and portable culture stands that sell locally made art and food.
Whatever you experience is free. And the new bridges? Priceless.
Fermentation Fest: A Live Convergence is Oct. 4-13 in and near Reedsburg. Get details about events and the Farm/Art DTour route at fermentationfest.com, 608-415-0347.
Reedsburg, population 9,300, also is a stop on the 400 State Trail, a bicycling route that hooks up with the Elroy-Sparta, La Crosse River and Great River state trails.
A canoe ride from Reedsburg to Rock Springs on the Baraboo River takes five or six hours. Equipment can be rented from Beyond Boundaries in nearby Wonewoc; shuttle services provided. goingfarbeyond.com, 608-464-7433.
For more about the area: reedsburg.org, 608-524-2850.