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This festival aims to bridge the urban-rural political divide ‘in a time of rot’

A food and arts festival in central Wisconsin has grand ambitions. “Fermentation Fest” celebrates art, farming and all things fermented. But in addition to serving up sauerkraut and kombucha, festival organizers from The Wormfarm Institute also hope it provides an opportunity for people living in urban and rural areas to connect with each other. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, an unusual food and arts festival aimed at bridging the urban-rural divide in Central Wisconsin.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from the city of Reedsburg. It's part of his American Creators series.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's called Fermentation Fest, a celebration of Wisconsin rural life and all things fermented, cheese and beer, of course, but also, bread, kombucha, and kefir.

    Fermentation involves the chemical breakdown of vegetables, fruits and other organic material to extend their use and create new tastes.

    But this two-week gathering every fall, started seven years ago by husband-and-wife team Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas, also comes with a bigger idea.

  • Jay Salinas:

    The idea of fermentation as a metaphor, that it's controlled rot. When things break down, inevitably, but in the right circumstances, they turn into delicious products.

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    Yes, something that adds longer shelf life, dense nutrients.

  • Jay Salinas:

    Strong flavors.

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    Strong flavors, and, in some cases, altered states of consciousness.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    So, as the metaphor, if we're in this time of rot, we can harvest it at just the right moment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Neuwirth and Salinas are artists who first met in Chicago. But 20 years ago, tired of city life, they packed their bags and bought a farm outside Reedsburg, a small community in Sauk County.

    When you came out here, did you know anything about farming?

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    Zero. We had…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Zero?

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    We had one tomato plant on our fire escape in Chicago, which never produced fruit.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Soon, they were producing so much food, they began to sell it to Chicago families through subscriptions.

    At the same time, their artist friends from the city would visit and help with chores. It was the beginning of what would grow into Fermentation Fest, with a goal of helping bridge the rural-urban divide.

  • Donna Neuwirth:

    I think underlying that divide is a deep connection. Eighty percent of what any farmer grows goes to an urban consumer, and so urban people are involved in all the decisions made about how land is used in this country.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The festival draws urban visitors to meet and mix with local farmers.

  • Woman:

    We have carrot kraut, which also has juniper berries in it, which is good for digestion.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There are classes and tastings. Linda Conroy showed me the benefits of fermented herbs.

  • Tara Whitsitt:

    This is just green cabbage with caraway.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And Tara Whitsitt, dubbed the Johnny Appleseed of pickling by The New York Times, introduced me to the wonders of sauerkraut.

    For five years, she's been traveling the U.S. in a tricked-out school bus she uses as a kitchen and lab.

  • Tara Whitsitt:

    Fermentation has been a revelation in my life. I just realized how disconnected I was from, like, the natural world and microbes and ecosystems.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In addition to food, there's art, along a 50-mile driving tour past farms that play host to professional juried art installations.

    Fourth-generation dairy farmer Pat McCluskey has often welcomed artists onto his land. Five years ago, it was Peter Krsko, an artist from Washington, D.C., who created a piece called Tree From Within.

  • Pat McCluskey:

    He used a bunch of brush and hollowed out the inside. And I helped him haul almost all the brush that he used. And it was fun, just watching how they think and…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How they think?

  • Pat McCluskey:

    Yes. They think way different than I do.

    Maybe this would be better if we shifted this back a little.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    McCluskey was so inspired, he began building his own sculptures.

  • Pat McCluskey:

    We're just hoping it stays up for two more days now. That's our goal.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This year, it was a giant cow sphinx and pyramid made from interconnected hay bales, another metaphor.

  • Pat McCluskey:

    We do much the same thing here at our farm store. We have concerts, and we get people from a lot of different urban settings. And we try to build community that way. And it's a good way to do it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Based on the idea that there's a growing divide, right, between the rural and the city?

  • Pat McCluskey:

    Oh, right. The disconnect is getting bigger and bigger.

  • Sarah FitzSimons:

    So this is the front door. It's been great for me to watch how people interact with this structure.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Madison-based artist Sarah FitzSimons constructed a ghost-like outline of a family farm on McCluskey land, exploring boundaries of indoor and outdoor, agriculture and art, rural and urban.

  • Sarah FitzSimons:

    I think a big part of that divide is, we don't socialize with each other. And if we don't come into contact with people in other bubbles, that's only going to strengthen the divide.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The divisions here, as everywhere, are also political. This region split almost down the middle in 2016, with Donald Trump winning Sauk County by just 100 votes.

    Jay Salinas said the election made their work feel ever more urgent.

  • Jay Salinas:

    It's something we have certainly become much more cognizant after having woken in early November 2016, and see those electoral maps and see these islands of blue and seas of red. And so, regardless of what you thought of the outcome of the election, that is not a healthy dynamic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Islands of blue being the urban…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jay Salinas:

    Yes, exactly, yes, and then the red being the productive farmland.

  • Mike St. John:

    We're going the wrong way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Festival attendee Mike St. John, who told us he votes mostly Republican, says local culture has changed with the divisive politics.

  • Mike St. John:

    Nobody talks to anybody.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Nobody talks to anybody?

  • Mike St. John:

    Yes. I'm often curious as to why a lot of people believe some things, but you can never talk to them and have a conversation about it, because they'd go off the handle.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what does America today sound like? Artist David Sanchez Burr took the cacophony and, here in a Wisconsin field, blended it into a strange soundscape he calls Nowhereradio.

  •  David Sanchez Burr:

    The idea is to have people collaborate with me on projects, just inviting everyone to be a part of this audio experience.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Somewhere in here, the sounds of pigs, someone reading a poem about a failing family farm…

  • Man:

    The lights went out on the farm for the last time tonight, for, tomorrow, the cows will be gone.

  •  David Sanchez Burr:

    If we train ourselves to speak to each other, this is a vehicle that could work for that. Can an artwork actually change something? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the effort is there to give people voice, and I think that that's something that's needed.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A fine thought in a county and country full of ferment.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nowhereradio, North Freedom, Wisconsin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. And we're not going to leave you there, Jeffrey. Please come back.

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