Reedsburg, WI: The Farm/Art DTour
How do you encourage conversations between rural farmers and visitors from the city?
Farm/Art DTour is a ten-day self-guided driving tour through scenic working farm land of Sauk County, Wisconsin punctuated with Art Works (temporary art installations), Field Notes (educational signs), Roadside Culture Stands (artist-built mobile farm stands), Farm Forms (creative participation by landowners), Pasture Performances and Roadside Poetry. In 2011, the Farm/Art DTour was part of the Annual Fermentation Fest – A Live Culture Convergence that included a wide variety of classes, workshops, demonstrations, dinners, and performances – highlighting live culture in all its forms. The 50 mile DTour route had twenty- seven stops, representing agreements with many landowners.
Reedsburg, Wisconsin, and the surrounding area, is a landscape of rolling hills and working farm lands in northern Sauk County. It is a place where small family farms can thrive, because the topography does not allow for the corporate scale agriculture that is common in the flatter portions of the state. Over the years the town has developed a strong economic base that supports both agriculture and commercial industries. It is a diversified base that sustains a growing population and the beginnings of a seasonal tourism industry with visitors that are drawn to the area’s scenic beauty and regional reputation for arts and sustainable agriculture. This growing cultural community benefits from the support of the county government (Sauk County is one of three county governments - and the only rural one - in Wisconsin that directly supports the arts). County officials here understand the direct quality of life benefit that the arts bring to the region and how the arts can help retain the area’s youth who tend to migrate to larger nearby cities. “We don’t have the amenities of Madison”, said one county official. “By attracting artists to the region, the DTour gave Reedsburg a reason to strategically invest in order to retain young people and attract live/work professionals.”
Today the town of Reedsburg has approximately 9,000 residents. Settlers were attracted to the area’s iron, copper, and timber and established the town in the mid-1800s. What began as a sawmill and 5 small wooden workmen houses, today is a thriving downtown that serves residents, area farmers, and a growing number of visitors. Though the Farm/Art DTour project’s local constituents comprised both area residents and downtown business owners that support local tourism, such as the town’s restaurants and bed and breakfasts, the project’s larger targeted community included a much wider geographic reach. The DTour aimed to attract visitors from cities as near as Madison or as far as Chicago, who have a growing interest in reconnecting to the source of their food, yet who rarely see farms. This audience, along with those interested in public art, craft brewing, artisanal food, and conservation, created a large and diverse set of visitors to the area.
Often a disconnect exists between farm families trying to maintain their agricultural businesses in a hypercompetitive farming economy, and visitors who appreciate family scale farming as a source of artisanal products. The farmers who hosted art installations on the DTour typically find themselves in the middle, trying to balance the needs of both markets. It is within this tension that the project’s director and Wormfarm’s co- founder, Donna Neuwirth, found opportunity. Donna is a pragmatist about the issues at hand. She recognizes that, “People have a sincere and earnest interest in connecting more deeply to their food, but may have no understanding at all of the commodity markets most farmers are part of.” It is precisely this reality that needed to become a starting point for dialogue between the farmers and the urban tourists that came to see the art. “Twenty years ago this wouldn’t have been that interesting,” Donna said, recognizing the fact that today a greater divide stands between our rural and urban lifestyles than was there decades ago; at the same time, an energized local food economy has revalued the vital role farmers play in all our lives.
With an understanding that farmers and artists have creation in common, Wormfarm formed a vision for farm-based ephemeral art installations and roadside Culture Stands (artist designed/built mobile farm stands). This began an exploration of the ever-evolving connections between people and the land. Originally, the Farm/Art DTour served as a “fringe festival” to a long-standing traditional Art Tour featuring studio visits. Working at the intersection of community development and festival production, Donna was passionate about the potential of art to “ferment” relationships and form personal connections between people that would normally never meet. “Fermentation is about abundance and transformation – from grain to beer, from milk to cheese, from cabbage to kimchee. It’s also the perfect metaphor for community transformation." She and her team held a deep respect for this moment of reciprocity between farmers and urban residents and worked hard, “not to have urban ideas privileged over rural ideas.” They constantly asked the question “How can rural life revitalize the arts?” Kominy-Tractor, Artist Heath Matysek Snyder
Along with the project’s primary leads Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas, there were many voices around the table directing and guiding it along. Both Neuwirth and Salinas saw their work as one of creating a larger “social sculpture” of project team members and advisors that could help build bridges and support connections between participating artists, farmers, brewers, cheesemakers, and local businesses. Within their own central project management team, they brought in artists, curators, Chamber of Commerce, county extension agents, and County staff. This diversity of professional experience and viewpoints was pragmatic and helped the project to address the complex and continuous issues associated building an agri/cultural tourism event. But bringing in a diverse set of voices to help guide the project was more than a pragmatic consideration, as Neuwirth and Salinas also recognized that they needed, “different kinds of people at the helm in order to build a strong infrastructure for the future.”
The larger team readily admits that pulling the project together was a greater challenge than they thought it would be. Though the Our Town grant supported the commissioning of nine ephemeral art installations in farm fields in collaboration with private land owners, the artist selection was only the first piece in a larger choreography of branding, marketing, community outreach, and negotiating the larger regulatory issues that needed to be addressed. Strategically in the project’s first year, the project team worked with carefully selected artists and farmers that they knew had the capacity to work together. Sauk County, as Wormfarm’s government partner, provided staff through the County Extension office who served as a link with the farm community and helped the project team to navigate the regulatory issues of signage permits, trespassing ordinances, and the myriad of other details that had to be in place to run a successful festival. Neuwirth and Salinas knew from the beginning that they, “didn’t have the all skills necessary to be community facilitators and festival administrators,” but they made sure that there were people around them that could deftly handle the different issues that arose.
The Farm/Art DTour project was able to achieve its primary goal of increasing dialogue and cooperation among a wide range of partners including the public and private sectors, nonprofits, farmers, artists, and local government staff. Locating sites for the installations was itself an interdisciplinary collaboration, as landowners and artists worked together to address issues ranging from accessibility to safety to visual impact. In some cases farmers even provided equipment and technical assistance to artists. The project also was able to create tourism in the area with an estimated 4,200 DTour visitors, over 65% of whom traveled over 50 miles to see the installations. Through the use of surveys, the project team was also able to capture how these visits helped to increase the revenue of many local businesses– some of whom saw revenue increases of as much as 300%.
One of the surprises that came about through the project was the level of impact it had on both a local and a state level. Locally, farmers talked about the deep pride they felt in showing off their land. As Kristine Koenecke, the Chamber Director explained, “farmers love to showcase their land and what they do. Most times farmers aren’t prideful people, but the tour gave them a chance to show off.” A number of farmers were so inspired by what happened on their farms that they themselves became the artists the following year, creating their own contributions to the DTour. On a state level, the project has caught the interest of the USDA Director of Rural Development who is excited about the interdisciplinary potential the project holds. State Senator Dale Schultz has noted, “This is a really, really great way to showcase our part of the state. This is exactly the kind of imaginative approach our rural communities need if we’re going to get the word out to the rest of the world. Now I just want to know how I can get my farm on the tour.”
- Village Artworks
- Dietz Designs
- Reedsburg Area Chamber of Commerce Director Kristine Koenecke
- Sauk County Planning and Zoning Department
- K Clark Pickles and Preserves
- Carr Vallet Carr Valley Cheese
- Cedar Grove Cheese
- ArtPlace America
- Wisconsin Arts Board
- Sauk County Arts and Culture Committee
- Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (major sponsor)
- Sauk County (Land Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department) – helped secured land use approvals, traffic issues and signage, educational content for Field Notes.
- Home & Community Educators – provided valuable regional connections
- Sauk County UW Extension, Community Development Specialist Jenny Erickson – involved with everything from planning meetings to evaluation.
- Katie Schofield
- Randy Walker
- David Wells
- Cathi Schwalbe
- Chris Lutter-Gardella
- Terrence Campagna
- Laura Annis and Alexis Ortiz (team)