Food ChainSauk County, WI
Wormfarm Institute works to integrate culture and agriculture. Their two linked ArtPlace projects use the vision of artists to explore the timeless connection between land and people. ArtPlace asked Wormfarm co-founders Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas about some of the challenges in their placemaking work.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your efforts? How did you get burned, or how did you prevail?
Despite our recent good fortune, the Wormfarm remains a tiny organization. We have one year round employee but swell to a payroll of 10 when in full project mode and might work with dozens of artists, performers, and contractors in any given year. Because of ArtPlace support, and prodded by encouragement to expand the vision we’ve had to consciously become influential- to take on a leadership role in areas we are not accustomed to navigating. We are reaching outside of established networks and our comfort zone to try and make an impact regionally. This entails both a geographic reach, outside of our rural community into centers of population and culture but also into institutions of learning and governance – working with Universities, politicians, Federal Agencies and bureaucrats.
In the previous 12 years we grew slowly, like a perennial, establishing deep roots with some modest but not showy top growth. We completed projects and found collaborators among affinity groups -the mostly like-minded who shared or at least appreciated our enthusiasms. Our longest running is our artist residency program and though artists come from across the country – and usually from cities– they stay here for awhile to make art and experience the life a of a working farm where the dirt and the plants and the worms are of this place. Their artwork responds in kind. Over the years we have taken this annual creative response and expanded its scope in hopes of sharing with the broader community and to underscore the vital connections between urban and rural, particularly as it relates to that great convener and peacemaker – food.
Due to the success of the DTour and a substantially expanded network of collaborators, we’re taking on a new challenging role – we have become proselytizers- going places where we’re not known, invited or accepted and try to convert folks to the cause: Follow me! Connect farming and the Arts and you will: reenchant agriculture, reground artists and revitalize both rural small towns and city neighborhoods. For the Food Chain project, Madison and Milwaukee are the heathen lands. The state’s capital and largest city respectively both have well-developed cultural and food systems work in place, world class universities and Fortune 500 companies. And here’s lowly Wormfarm; puny, unfashionably-dressed, ill-coiffed upstarts from the sticks still slightly redolent of the barn. And we’ve got this great idea…
Not only that – we’ve proven that it works but… we need a larger stage. The risk in thinking very big is looking foolish, appearing irrelevant. We’re happy to take that one on. Convinced of the value of this work we’ve set up meetings with our Senators and high ranking officials at USDA. We have made requests for line items in the state budget knowing that an investment in innovative rural development projects must – like the individual fields we all hope to improve – eliminate monoculture. We are very much in the thick of it- neither burned nor victorious. But if things continue to move forward both the risks and the rewards will increase.
PHOTO: From Pass Words, roadside poetry along the Farm/Art DTour