Stories of the Humanities at Work

Keep One Cow Apart

Fermentation Fest: A Live Cultural Convergence in 2020

Over the course of nine days in the fall of 2020, thousands of visitors wandered (one cow apart) through hay fields and country churchyards in Sauk County to experience the creative work that farmers and artists do every day. Wisconsin Humanities is proud to have supported the 2020 Art/Farm DTour, produced by Wormfarm Institute, and spoke with the project director recently to learn about how special adaptations were made to keep visitors, and presenters, safe during the pandemic.


The land remembers, and it has a story to tell. Many stories, really—about the relationship between rural and urban communities, and about our understanding of the environment that feeds and sustains all of us. During a pandemic, the land can also provide a vast canvas for telling those stories and expressing new ideas.

The Land Remembers sign

Wormfarm Institute is an arts organization based in southwest Wisconsin whose mission is to integrate culture and agriculture. In the spring of 2020, when the organization received one of our Major Grants to support the biennial Farm/Art DTour, a feature of its Fermentation Fest, no one imagined the COVID-19 pandemic would persist into autumn.

“We were in a bizarrely unique position to operate under COVID conditions because our event is not inside,” says Philip Matthews, Wormfarm’s Director of Programs. “Social distancing is built in.”

But it wasn’t exactly business as usual. A typical Fermentation Fest involves in-person activities and classes, and a pop-up shop called the “Food Chain” that bustles with people visiting the stalls where artists and fermenters sell their products. One of the festival’s most popular attractions is the Farm/Art DTour—a self-guided, outdoor art exhibition that winds through the scenic working farmlands of rural Sauk County. To create the DTour, artists had to gather on site for orientation, meet the farmers and tour the farms that would host their artworks.

“In May, we weren’t sure what we could do by [autumn],” says Matthews. But creative ideas abounded. Festival organizers adopted a light-hearted “one cow apart” social distancing campaign and designed safe outdoor gathering spaces.

Fermentation Fest 2020 The Land Speaks dialogue picture

“We came up with the idea of installing dialogue signs along the 50-mile route that you could enjoy even without leaving the car,” Matthews says. Natural historian Curt Meine selected quotes from Wisconsin conservationists, poets, farmers and indigenous leaders for the signs, which would suggest that the land’s current and former inhabitants were speaking directly to DTour visitors.

DTour artists listened to recorded interviews with farmers, met on Zoom for orientation, and were encouraged to think about how their work could be enjoyed both up close and from the safety of a car. The DTour’s guidebook was turned into a literary zine with an introductory essay by Meine and other artwork and writings to create a snapshot of the year.

Prior to the pandemic, Wormfarm planned to partner with the Local Voices Network (LVN), which organizes, records and shares small-group conversations to amplify voices that often go unheard. These conversations are archived so that researchers and reporters can easily access them.

Fermentation Fest art along the river
Fermentation Fest Fluvial Close up

“As the pandemic became serious and LVN pivoted to Zoom, we realized this would be a way to have rural-urban divide discussions,” says Matthews. This led to a featured collaborative artwork titled FLUVIAL, by artists Sheila Novake, Emilie Bouvier and Crysten Nesseth. The work contains community stories and images that the artists pulled from LVN conversation highlights and written correspondence with Sauk County residents, then printed on 75 banners installed along Honey Creek. After the DTour, the collaboration with LVN and the accessibility of Zoom encouraged additional conversations between rural and urban communities to take place.

Adjusting for COVID wasn’t just about making short-term changes to the structure of a regular event. Matthews says they’ve been doing a lot of reflection, and some of those changes will likely shape the next event, in 2022.

We are "recommitting to why [the DTour] matters and can matter, also understanding ways it might need to evolve,” says Matthews. “In nine years of running it, it could be easy to just repeat what we’ve done. But we’re taking a moment, and experimenting this growing season to reevaluate how we’re operating.”

Matthews says that, “One thing we’ve been reflecting on is deepening community relationships and building reciprocity and mutual support.” He notes that the struggles of local businesses have them pondering how the DTour can bring rural and urban residents together, benefit the region economically, and share those efforts with local artists and businesses.

The sudden cancellation of so much cultural programming in 2020 has Wormfarm thinking about how cultural organizations could do more to work together, “so we’re sharing, not competing for resources,” says Matthews.

We're impressed by Wormfarm Institute's creative approach to the challenges of 2020, and willingness to re-envision the future as a result. We're eager to see what they'll cultivate for Fermentation Fest 2022!


Fermentation Fest 2020 artwork