Wormfarm has just completed its 7th annual Fermentation Fest- A Live Culture Convergence. This project began with support from both NEA Our Town as well as ArtPlace America in their initial year of funding. This was an exciting time for us and it propelled our work from modest offerings by an idiosyncratic founder-led organization that only two years earlier had an annual budget of about 30K to one that had an ambitious dream realized along with the attention (& scrutiny) of local, state and national colleagues and a budget more than 10x larger. After completing a couple years of the Fest a funder confided that they worried that the sudden growth in both scale and impact might “kill us”.
Well not dead yet but we’re still figuring out how to be a mature organization. As with many small nonprofits, we struggle to hire and retain good people maintain infrastructure, and still generate, host or catalyze compelling, original and occasionally provocative cultural offerings. Creation of art, music, poetry and dance require an impermeable roof and regular meals.
As it happens, food and farming have always been a central part of both our programs and the metaphors that underscore them. We grow food - we till the soil both literally and metaphorically, giving full meaning to the origin of the word culture. A viable local food system is critical to the health of the land and the people that inhabit it and we believe that arts and culture offer a uniquely effective means to illuminate this fact. This includes acknowledging and celebrating those that produce the food and the methods they employ, as well as those that prepare and consume what is produced. And growing an economy that supports and values each link in the food chain.
"We grow food - we till the soil both literally and metaphorically, giving full meaning to the origin of the word culture. A viable local food system is critical to the health of the land and the people that inhabit it and we believe that arts and culture offer a uniquely effective means to illuminate this fact. "
Fermentation is about abundance and transformation. We have utilized local food entrepreneurs in our projects to inoculate our community with examples of beneficial activity that we hope will multiply. They have become significant part of the Fest through what we call Food Chain. This builds upon a synergistic combination our two ArtPlace awards- the 1st for the Fest itself and the 2nd for Food Chain - a marketplace of food art and ideas that expanded on our Roadside Culture Stands initiative. Culture Stands are artist-designed & built mobile vending platforms that are used by our Food Chain partners during the Fest as well as at other events during the year.
A Food Chain is a gathering of vendors usually operating out of Culture Stands. They invigorate and enliven existing outdoor celebrations or have the ability to generate their own critical mass for conviviality. Some of the vendors have worked with Wormfarm and the Ferm Fest for years linking their business identity to this event. All have established themselves as human-scale purveyors of high quality, locally sourced foods. The largest has fewer than ten employees and several are sole proprietors. A couple of these businesses were started to fulfill the unmet demand for “good things to eat” along the 50 mile Farm/ Art DTour by the 20,000 attendees to annual Fermentation Fest.
Kimberly Anderson, the founder of Chef K Clarks Pickles & Preserves is a great example. While planning for the second year of the Fest we met with Kimberly to help us address this good food deficiency. A chef for over 20 years, she was semi-retired, having grown weary of the high-pressure treadmill of even successful restaurants. She agreed to make some pickles, jams & jellies using old family recipes and marketed them in a Culture Stand under a newly enacted cottage food law in Wisconsin. The law states that one can sell low-acid foods prepared in a home kitchen as long as annual sales are below $5000. Well, Chef K threatened to exceed that limit in her 10 days of selling during the Fest and this success determined her next steps. She is now fully licensed, operating from a shared commercial kitchen, and distributing her products state- and nationwide. A successful small business that supports the work of sustainable farmers and a job creator.
We have since connected and developed mutually supportive relationships with coffee roasters, organic mushroom growers, bakers, fermenters, cheesemakers and farmstead chocolatiers. Their presence at the Ferm Fest Food Chain is a significant attraction for visitors and their year-round presence in various regional markets contributes to a healthy local food system and promotes our work.
Food Chain has become a critical element of Fermentation Fest and these vendors have become a critical part of Food Chain. This has led to the formation of a cohort that not only interact during our events but extend to actual collaborations. Hand-roasted, Lodge Coffee infused Roots Chocolate truffles, Fizzeology kimchi topped sliders from Whimsy Dish, Chef K’s signature Beer Jelly served on Origin Breads sourdough boule are a few examples of ongoing relationships far beyond Fermentation Fest but in the spirit of dividing a growing the starter culture.
One interesting detail to note is that with a couple exceptions, the nearly dozen Food Chain partners have mostly eschewed bricks & mortar locations for farmers markets, special events and sell their products online or in existing stores. This lean and nimble posture acknowledges the challenge faced by a food-based business around here that depends upon the support of an enlightened & demanding consumer. Despite our having worked for over 20 years in one way or another to improve the food culture of our county, our successes are modest and tenuous. Sauk County has thousands of acres of rich fertile soil, a growing number of organic & sustainable farms and generations of wisdom, yet there are no restaurants in that regularly feature a farm-to-table dining experience, we have many farmer’s markets but few that are well-established and the offerings of local produce at grocery stores remain sporadic.
Obviously there is still much work to do but we’re feeling like this ground is fertile, well-tilled and ready produce. And there are promising enterprises sprouting: a new business selling ready to eat meals is off to a good start sourcing from Wormfarm and other local farms; a tavern owner involved in downtown revitalization efforts has decided to go beyond bar food and is enrolled in culinary arts school; the regional technical college is offering a fermentation module; and young local cheesemakers are developing in their own brands of specialty cheese.
This discovered or rediscovered embrace of real food - fresh, local, handmade and supportive of farmers just up the Food Chain, expands a public whose appetites are whetted for something new (yet familiar) – can art appreciation be far behind?