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Wormfarm Institute: Connecting People, Art and Agriculture in Rural Wisconsin

Since 2000, the Wormfarm Institute has been celebrating and connecting people, art, and the land.

Based in rural Sauk County, Wisconsin, Wormfarm Institute amplifies rural culture through the arts and ecology, bringing together farmers, artists, and rural and urban communities in the fertile landscape that supports us all.

Wormfarm’s unique approach stems not from a new trend but rather an old tradition. For thousands of years, farmers in cultures around the world used dance, music, and art as rituals alongside their planting and harvesting in celebration of the land and those who care for it.

Wormfarm’s Founders Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas decided to leave their home in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago for rural southern Wisconsin to experiment with another way to live. Over time, they began collaborating with their rural and urban neighbors to launch creative programs, including a puppet festival on Main Street and artist residency on a small vegetable farm. This creative work, according to Neuwirth and Salinas, is essential to a thriving community.

Neuwirth and Salinas’ vision has helped make Sauk County a creative hub, boosting tourism and economic development for the region for the past 20 years.

In 2011 Wormfarm launched the Farm/Art DTour (DTour), a roughly 50-mile driving exploration through the verdant expanse of Sauk County. The ten-day biennial event draws more than 25,000 people from all over the country.

Along the way, visitors experience the fusion of art and agriculture through roadside poetry, pasture performances, artist-built farm stands, and pop-up shops with farmers and artists selling their work. The tour is punctuated by site-responsive public art installations that invite new attention to the work that farmers do every day.

In the years between DTours, Wormfarm presents a series of “Test Plots”, in which farmers and artists work together to try out new ideas, new crops, and prototype artworks that might be featured on the next year’s DTour, all while deepening community relationships for long-term benefit.

One of the current “Test Plots” features an evolving earthwork sculpture by artist Tory Tepp.

In 2020, after returning to Sauk County, Tepp began working with Kernza, a perennial grain being trialed across the Midwest. Celebrated for its sustainability, Kernza regenerates the soil by creating a deep root system rich with nutrients that also sequesters carbon.

Tepp created the “Sauk County ARK,” as another installation in his decades-long passion for using art made from soil, vegetation, and discarded materials as vessels for creating community.

The structure, which gives the appearance of an old landlocked ship that crashed into a field, embraces the history and essence of Sauk County, as it is composed of old farm equipment that has literally been put out to pasture. Commissioned for the 2020 DTour, the ARK is a shipwreck of old agriculture and also signifies agricultural progress as it overlooks a vibrant four-acre field of Kernza.

Beyond constructing the ARK, Tepp introduced Kernza to the land’s owners, farmers Alma and Bill Gasser, who also own a local bakery. Tepp has built an ongoing relationship with the Gassers: in 2021, they harvested the first crop together and are now assessing possibilities for the yield.

Melding art and farming, the ARK speaks to Tepp’s efforts to use agriculture to build community.

"Agricultural ritual used to be an enormous part of society,” he said. “For me, this is a way of reinforcing our connections to the land, to the food we put in our bodies. It’s a way of recovering a care for the land that many of us have lost.”