Abundance and Transformation: A Trip Through Fermentation Fest’s Farm/Art DTour


By Steve Gotcher | October 15, 2020

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  • "Cloud" by artist Charlie Vrouwer (photo by Heike Saynisch)

"Cloud" by artist Charlie Vrouwer (Photo by Heike Saynisch)

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Fermentation Fest has been celebrating all things live culture for more than a decade. The festival’s Farm/Art DTour sends people on a 50-mile journey, teaching them about microbes and showcasing artwork and roadside poetry — all while socially distant.

“Fermentation is about abundance and transformation,” said Donna Neuwirth, executive director of Wormfarm Institute, the group responsible for the tour. “So whether it’s from milk to cheese or grain beer or from one sort of community to another, it’s about that kind of abundance and transformation. How one thing turns into another thing and has greater value and longer shelf life. So what we were trying to do is invite people to come closer. But the 40 stops on that 50-mile route are interspersed with what farmers do every day.”

My wife, Heike, and I had heard of Fermentation Fest and thought driving through the Farm/Art DTour would be a fun excuse to get out of the house. Driving to Sauk City from Madison, we had no idea what we were getting into.

We meandered through small towns, churchyards, and farm fields set against the gorgeous backdrop of Sauk County’s dynamic countryside. After a quick stop in Sauk City to pick up a tour map, we discovered a website that plays a tour length sound symphony. Following a GPS in an app, it plays sound and music at different locations. Designer Hugh Livingston drove the tour route twice a day for two weeks, logging 18 hundred miles to make sure the sounds played at precise spots along the journey. The result created a stunning soundtrack for the tour.

Just outside of Sauk City, Voices of Cistercian nuns from Valley of Our Lady Monastery filled the car as we passed a poem printed on a series of signs along the road.

“From rot to riches

Composts Holy work

To worship

I go to church with a pitchfork”

– Poem by Woody Leslie

A few miles later, we passed an old fire truck by the side of the road and heard the sound of a small stream as we crossed a bridge. In the distance, the Baraboo hills rolled across the horizon as a voice recited the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, commenting on the beauty of Sauk county.

Along the route, art creations dotted the landscape. We stopped at an earthwork sculpture in the form of a ship’s prow, emerging from the side of a gently sloping hill in a field of kernza. Kernza is a perennial grain that can be made into flour.

Tory Tepp, the creator of this art project, explains how this work came about.

Sauk County Ark (Photo by Heike Saynisch)

Sauk County Ark (Photo by Heike Saynisch)

“This is called the ‘Sauk County Ark’ and it is that stands for the agricultural recon craft,” said Tepp. “But my collaborating partner is the Gasser family, and they own Tower Rock Bakery just down the street. So this is kind of an experiment for us both. And when we harvest next summer, we’re going to see if we can incorporate some of the kernza into their bread-making or pastry making. Then, the earthwork itself is kind of in the form of a ship or a shipwreck. All of this is from old agriculture. The ideas that ryegrass and all of these little gardens of cover crops and the kernza — it is an opportunity to move forward with new agriculture.”

The tour continued from farm to farm and valley to valley with various art displays along the way. The soundscape moved from natural sounds to discussions of dairy farming and oral collages of farming sounds.

Fifty miles later, we found ourselves back in Sauk City. Reflecting on all that we’d seen and heard.

“It’s reknitting together urban and rural concerns around land and nourishment,” Donna Neuwirth said, summarizing what Fermentation Fest participation is all about. “I think that those things will always be critical. And this is just a fun, exciting way to kind of bring people into that experience.”

The 2020 Fermentation Fest ran from September 26 to October 4.

Art at Fermentation Fest (Photo by Heike Saynisch)

Art at Fermentation Fest (Photo by Heike Saynisch)

Steve Gotcher

Steve Gotcher is a technical director and producer with Wisconsin Public Radio.
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