Jay Salinas Artist, farmer, and co-founder of Wormfarm
Jay Salinas: Wormfarm, physically, emanates from 40 acres in Sauk County, Wisconsin on the northeast edge of the Driftless Zone where we raise organic vegetables but also host community arts programming, including a visiting artist program. We are called the Wormfarm for a couple of reasons. Number one, worms are the indicator of a healthy soil, indicator and builder of a healthy soil. There’s a quote from Charles Darwin that, once we saw it, we knew that we would use it forever, and that is, “Every fertile grain of soil has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm.” So it’s an homage to this seemingly lowly creature upon which all of our fertility is dependent. We are also called the Wormfarm to be slightly irreverent in the business that we began here with organic vegetables. But it turned out to be really a good choice because, first of all, people never forget it. People who’ve heard about it only once will always remember the place, the Wormfarm. But it has also really come to be emblematic of our work in developing healthy soils, whether it’s for vegetables, or fertile soils, whether it’s for vegetables or for the creative arts, for creativity.
Jo Reed: That is farmer and artist, Jay Salinas. He and his partner, Donna Neuwirth are the founders of Wormfarm. Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scene with some of the nation’s great artist to explore how art works. Fifteen years ago, Donna Neuwirth and Jay Salinas bought the farm, or a farm anyway, in Sauk County, Wisconsin. It was a big move for the two-Chicago bred artists, but they were drawn to the beautiful countryside and had a yearning to produce the food that they ate. So, beginning from a place of what Jay describes as almost total ignorance, they began to farm. They became a part of the (CSA) Community-Supported Agriculture movement, selling some of their produce to city folks, who in turn became interested in the farm. Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth, for their part never lost their passion for art even as they became more immersed in their new community. Well one thing led to another and the Wormfarm Institute was born, offering a place where agriculture, art, community, and creativity could blossom.
I spoke to Jay Salinas when he visited Washington DC recently. I wanted to know how Wormfarm as a concept developed.
Jay Salinas: Initially, Wormfarm began as an organic farm. We raised vegetables that we marketed through community-supported agriculture. But again, since we were artists where we fancied ourselves creative types, we had a lot of friends back in the city who also had that same vocation. And they would come and visit, and we would find that they would be very inspired by the landscape, by the land. The other thing about where we live is there’s a long and deep human and natural history to Sauk County, Wisconsin. One of the things rural Wisconsin doesn’t have is a lot of cultural offerings. And so we, in the grandest tradition of, “Let’s put on a show,” we started doing it ourselves. And at the beginning, it was pretty much for ourselves. Actually, we began by mounting exhibits on the farm with this organic vegetable marketing system, community-supported agriculture, we had families come to the farm to get a farm experience. And we ended our season with a harvest festival. By this time, we’d had artists working on the farm in a very sort of informal artist residency program.
Jo Reed: Let me just interrupt for a second. So it would be families from the city...
Jay Salinas: Families from Chicago.
Jo Reed: ...coming to the farm to get groceries.
Jay Salinas: Coming to-- right, about 200 miles from Chicago to pick up their fresh produce. And then we had young emerging artists who, through word of mouth or other ways, would find their way to the farm and want to work on a farm. There’s a lot of young people who are really hungry for that experience, and more and more creative people, who feel that need also. But they would come to the farm and they would have minimal duties on the farm, and then the rest of the time their charge would be to follow their own creative impulse. And so with our season-ending harvest festival, we always included an artist exhibit that would be mounted in the barn, as a 1915 Dutch gambrel old dairy barn, this really beautiful space, almost cathedral-like in a way. And some of it would be 2-D, and some of it would be 3-D, and some of it would be enormous and some of it would be tiny, and it was really wonderful experience for a rather small group. In about 2000, right about the time we became incorporated as a not-for -profit, we acquired a building in downtown Reedsburg, a 1890s-- it was a former office building for a woolen mill. They used to be the big employer in town. And again, Donna, my partner, is the one who spotted it. It had been remodeled and covered with aluminum siding and boarded up, and the diamond in the rough. And so we acquired this and restored it, lovingly restored it, and had a beautiful storefront that we then turned into a gallery space. And so at that point we became literally invested in the community. It gave us a really high visibility venue right on Main Street where we began to mount exhibits and host speakers and workshops, et cetera.
Jo Reed: What’s the population of Reedsburg?
Jay Salinas: Reedsburg is about 10,000 now. It’s almost doubled in the time that we’ve been there. Yea, it’s always been fairly thriving economically.
Jo Reed: How did the community respond to this when you first started doing this?
Jay Salinas: Well, at first they didn’t respond. I remember back in the day we put on some really fantastic shows that had little or no people attending. But they were really well thought out and wonderfully installed. But each time we would do it we’d pick up one or two more people or three or four, and we began to reach out to local artists too, and then we’d get more and more people to come in. But it was very slow building. So if we hadn’t been passionate and truly believed in what we were doing, we probably would have given up long before now.
Jo Reed: It’s interesting, because when I was first thinking about what you do, I thought, this marriage of agriculture and art/culture, it seems so unusual. But then I had a little think, and I thought, in fact, it is quite traditional but we’ve gotten away from that in the same way we’ve gotten away from the way our food is grown, for example.
Jay Salinas: Exactly, yeah, yeah. I mean, culture is embedded in the word agriculture. I mean...
Jo Reed: That’s what started me thinking.
Jay Salinas: Right, right. And you’re right on all those accounts. I mean, what’s happened in agriculture is, in many cases, it’s become agribusiness, and we’ve really lost that cultural element. And the mission of the Wormfarm and, later on, the not for profit, which is the Wormfarm Institute, is to reintegrate culture and agriculture, to find those connections once again, which were there and are still there, if we look hard enough, and we find much fruitful, much fertile ground to work in that field, to extend the metaphor. I don’t remember where I heard this, but I’ve said it so often, I’m going to attribute it to myself. And that’s, “Food, because it is fundamental, is unique in its ability to affect social change or cultural development.” And it plays out over and over and over again. I mean, not to rely too much on quotes, but Wendell Barry, just a great poet-philosopher and farmer, “how we eat determines to a large extent how the world is used.” These are really powerful sentiments embodied in these very simple sentences. I mean, we’re-- a whole series, a whole project that’s developed over a number of years called the Re-enchantment of Agriculture. =Farmers, I maintain, and I don’t think it’s a particularly original-- are sort of the original interlocutors between the human and the natural world. They’re taking the stuff of the rain and the soil and the manure, and they create these concentrated packages of energy that we then take into our body in a sort of communion. So they’re working with these natural-- these eternal mysteries, life and death and sex and blood and these fundamental forces that they then turn into food, and what better way to communicate that then through art, through the metaphor making that art is, at its core, really about.
Jo Reed: You have a term called “cultureshed.” Explain what that means.
Jay Salinas: Well, okay. Most people know what a watershed is. Right? A geographic area that’s linked by its service waters, and when we find ourselves in this new agriculture, the term foodshed began to gain currency, which is an area that’s strived to become nutritionally self-sufficient as much as possible. And so in conjunction with a very early project we did back in the late ‘90s, I guess I coined the word cultureshed. And it’s the idea that a region should strive to become as culturally self-sufficient as possible. And this is not to cut yourself off from the outside world, but not to be solely dependent on sort of a top-down, what I call the baby bird model of cultural dissemination, that you’re not sitting there with your mouth open and waiting for someone to pop something in it. But it takes advantage of the deep pools of human and natural history of your area and the work of farmers and chefs and writers and poets and artists of your land, of your community, that can speak directly to the experience and, I would say, even the needs of the people in an area, in a region.
Jo Reed: Have you found, in your part of the world in Wisconsin, that this allows you to build a stronger community there or help participate in the building of a stronger community there?
Jay Salinas: It really has. I talked about the challenges we had early on, but we’re close to achieving critical mass. I think part of it is our persistence. Part of it is our ability to learn more about where we live and sort of maybe convincing our neighbors that we’re not carpetbaggers or we’re not passing through; we’re here to stay. We’ve really put down roots. We have reached out to the community and they have responded in kind. And so there does seem to be a much more fervent embrace of what is that we’re doing. For instance, last year, we were fortunate to host Key Ingredients, a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, museum from Main Street, Key Ingredients America by Food,” which was one of the perfect things for us to do. And so it gave us the opp...
Jo Reed: Explain a little bit about that.
Jay Salinas: Oh, “Museums on Main Street” is a fantastic project that runs out of the Smithsonian where they create traveling exhibits that will go around the country. They usually stop at maybe five or six places in each state. And communities-- I think you have to be under 10,000-- communities compete to host them by proposing a range of supporting programming. We were fortunate to be selected last year, and even more fortunate to be first on the list, because that meant that the people from the Smithsonian came and installed for us where everyone else had to do their own. But it also allowed us to leverage the Smithsonian name, to give us the imprimatur in order to secure a wider range of speakers than we normally would. I mean, we’re fortunate that we have some excellent and brilliant, even, people within our orbit, a sphere of influence that we’re able to call upon. And through them, we’re able to reach out even further. So last year-- some people may know the name, Gary Paul Nabhan, who’s a brilliant biologist, an ethno-botanist, I believe, based in Arizona, and actually a McArthur genius of about a decade ago. And we were able to bring him to the community, and we brought people from a hundred miles away to come to our local public library. We had this broader set of community partnerships, and some things took place at the library. Some things took place at the Woolen Mill Gallery. Some things took place at the high school auditorium, and so we were sort of spreading the wealth around in that way. So, yeah, it’s turned into a really wonderful and satisfying, not only to us, but increasingly to the community, where they realize that, again, we’re here to stay, that what we do has merit, and actually they’re participating too. They want to be part of it. They become the Chamber of Commerce. They become a great partner in current projects. We’re working with our county board, who is being very supportive of our work. So it’s been really a exercise in community building in a way that we would have never imagined 10 years ago or 13 years ago when we selected the silly name, Wormfarm.
Jo Reed: So what I’m hearing is that part of the reason Wormfarm is successful is because you didn’t see your mission as going to the country to teach the poor souls about art. You were there to learn as well as to share. It was a reciprocal arrangement.
Jay Salinas: Without a doubt. Yeah, yeah. I mean, we had ideas that we came with, but we have found ways to collaborate. We’ve found plenty of common ground. For instance, one of the things that came out of the key ingredients project last year was we-- I said just tremendous community support. Hundreds of people participated. And probably mid, half-way through, before the Smithsonian arrived but maybe six months into the year-long planning, people began to realize that this was something that was going to be a one-shot deal. And there was a lot of effort going into this, and then the Smithsonian would come; it would be here for six weeks. It would be a great thing, but then it would never come back, and they wanted to have something that would be left behind. And so then that’s when we came up with the idea of a Fermentation Festival. And so that’s sort of the leave-behind for the future. So I mean, we were fortunate that we live in a place where there’s still just a tremendous depth of knowledge on food preservation, canning and preserving and pickling, and it just happens to be that there’s a renewed interest among urban hipster types.
Jo Reed: And sustainability is also a growing concern right now for a growing number of people.
Jay Salinas: Yes, right, right. I mean, it’s not solely about convenience anymore and that there are things beyond convenience that are important. But sustainability is not just about the soil. A sustainable community is about thriving, not just surviving, and having a thriving culture and having a thriving agriculture is key to sustainability.
Jo Reed: You have some really interesting projects and one of them is something called culture stands. You take the old roadside stand that we’re all used to seeing in the countryside, but you just don’t sell apples.
Jay Salinas: Right. They’re artist-designed and built or artist- or architect-designed and built mobile food, produce vending stands that are made to be beautiful and visually compelling, whether they’re opened or closed. They can travel from place to place, so they’re not dependent on a single market. They can be little micro-entrepreneur mobiles. But they also have the ability or the specific mission to vend local art where allowed. I mean, we have found it’s much easier to sell carrots than it is to sell artwork, as far as zoning and licensing and things like that go. But if they can’t at least sell it, then each of these roadside culture stands has sort of an informational kiosk that will direct people to local art galleries, poetry or whatever. So this is a project that is in its third year now. We’re commissioning our third round of them. As we speak, they’re being built and we’re finding welcome homes for them. People are becoming very interested in using them, and so this is part of it too is that, not just having them built but finding the right community-based partner whose mission would be advanced by the use of the culture stand.
Jo Reed: And you’ve actually placed culture stands in the ciy. They’re not just in rural areas anymore.
Jay Salinas: Right, right. They’re in Milwaukee. They’re in Madison. They have the ability to address access to fresh local foods. I mean, the term “food desert” is one that’s becoming a little bit more controversial. But the idea that there are large swaths of urban areas where fresh food is not available, where only fast food or processed food is available, and so these culture stands, they’ve been built on trailers to be pulled behind trucks to this point. But there’s actually one being built now that is on a trike, just like the pedicabs out here, and will be able to then move about the city and/or a neighborhood and make fresh produce available.
Jo Reed: You have a speaker series as well.
Jay Salinas: Yes. It’s always been fairly thriving economically. And yes, for several years now in the gallery we have--it’s called the growing season, and again, referring to our work as farmers but also by the fact that, for very good reasons, it’s open from April till October, November, which is the growing season and also kind of avoids the bulk of the heating season, which makes it a little bit more financially sustainable. But we do about one exhibit a month and try and have a speaker. Sometimes, it’s thematically related to the art exhibit that’s installed, but sometimes there’s a broader theme that we’re working on through the year.
Jo Reed: Well, you’re having an exhibit this summer at the gallery that seems to me to be this great combination of science, art, agriculture called Watermark, and it’s about water. Explain what’s going to be happening at the gallery.
Jay Salinas: Well, water, I think everyone knows by now, is a huge issue. And we are working with-- I guess we’ll call her a curator or an organizer. Her name is Cathy Buzide, who we gave a show two years ago. Last year, she organized a show and she asked if she could do one again this year. Last year, it was called “Woman and Grain” and it was a fantastic show, reaching out across the country. She was able--through her connections, she brought artists literally from coast to coast to come to Reedsburg, Wisconsin and install work that addressed this idea of grain and seeds and, again, sustainability. And so when we talked about what she might do this year, the idea of water came up. And we’re in a place where we are blessed, truly blessed with a supply of surface and ground water that sustained us but has faced threats from corporate interests, who are interested in bottling the water and commodifying it, and that’s a whole other discussion. So this is going to be a celebration of this thing of this substance that we often time take for granted, even though we might pay a buck a bottle for it but that is key to sustaining us all. And that will be installed, I think, at the end of July.
Jo Reed: Your Artist-in-Residency program started off as something quite casual, but now it’s really a program.
Jay Salinas: Yeah. I mean, I used to joke that to call it a program would be like calling a teapot a particle accelerator. But it has really become a program, probably one of our foundational programs. And it’s still rather small and will probably have to remain that way because of our facility for the time being. But as I said earlier, it’s usually young, emerging artists who come and they want to immerse themselves in the life of a working farm and one that raises organic vegetables. So they actually participate. They help out in the garden, a minimal amount, but just enough to engage them in those processes. It serves to inform their work. It’s interesting that an increasing number of applicants each year and the work that results from their residency is complex and sophisticated, but it can still speak to the community. And again, we had a really wonderful experience last year where a visiting artist, Terrence Campagna, who’s actually in China right now on a residency, and whose work--I wouldn’t say that it’s challenging, but again, it’s very subtle and it’s very thoughtful and maybe not immediately accessible. And he gave an artist talk in the gallery last year, and it was lightly attended but the people who came, they were a group of elderly women that I think it was like a night out for a church group or something like that. And Terrence had them rapt, and he did some video work that was very subtle and focusing on the landscape, and you have to look really carefully to see something happen. But it’s just exquisite, sublime. But they got it, and Terrence was able to communicate verbally what he was doing too, and the women asked dozens of questions, and they kept him there for, like, a half an hour after his talk. And it was kind of like mini rock star, and it had to be one of my favorite experiences.
Jo Reed: And you ask each artist to leave a piece of their art behind, or to give a talk in the gallery.
Jay Salinas: They share with the community, and we end the growing season, exhibit season with a visiting artist exhibition. We ask, if appropriate, that they leave us with a work for the permanent collection that we bring out every once in a while and install a show.
Jo Reed: And you’re also involved in the Reedsburg history murals.
Jay Salinas: Yeah. Well, that was actually sort of the real icebreaker with the community. As I said, early on we put on some really fascinating art shows, that I thought were fascinating, but didn’t receive the level of attention that perhaps they deserved. And so in a way, to sort of figure out how to engage the community a little bit more, the idea of murals came about. And as I mentioned early on, there’s a fascinating history to our area, and so Donna, my partner and the executive director, brought together a group of painters, but mostly local painters. We had a few ringers in from the outdoors, and we started doing research. One of the things that led to it is the Baraboo River runs through our town, and the Baraboo River is, or was at the time-- had all of its dams removed, and was so the longest restored river in the United States, about a hundred miles. There was probably four or five dams left before they made a concerted effort to do this, to restore it, so it was the longest restored free-flowing river in the United States. But early in the European settlement, the rivers were dammed in order to divide power for mills, and the Woolen Mill Gallery was part of that. So it was a combination of natural resources, agriculture and industry which led to the founding or the establishment of the town of Reedsburg. And now with the river being un-dammed, it became more valuable as its natural resource again where the fishing was going to be better, the water quality and the air was going to be better. The flood plain was going to be improved by not having these dams there. There is also a bike trail, a rails-to-trail that runs along the river, the railroad tracks that used to run parallel to the river. So we were highlighting those things with the very first mural. And there was another one specifically about the bike trail, another one about-- there was a hops boom and bust in Reedsburg in the 1860s where, over a very short period of time, fortunes were made and lost raising hops for beer. And we have a little craft beer renaissance in Reedsburg, and so we were calling attention to that too. So tying these things together, the history of the land, the history of human industry, and also using the talents of local artists to depict this and keep it, to make it a gift to the community.
Jo Reed: What do you grow on the farm?
Jay Salinas: We grow organic vegetables. We have about four acres of mixed vegetables, maybe about 60 or 70 different things, that we have a couple of hoop houses where we extend our season. We do something called aquaponics, a mixture of flowing water, fish and plants. We do vermicomposting, so that’s one of the questions we get. “Do you raise worms?” And, “Well, yes, we do, as a matter of fact.” And again, going back to that Darwin quote, worm castings, worm poop, probably the best fertilizer known to man. We also have some livestock on the farm. We have a small laying flock for ourselves. Over the years, we’ve raised sheep and goats and cattle, and we’ve had horses. It’s a fully diversified farm, human and animal and plant-wise. So all of our elements are in balance.
Jo Reed: Jay Salinas, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Jay Salinas: Oh, my pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was Jay Salinas, he and Donna Neuwirth are founders of Wormfarm. You can find out more about rural creative placemaking in the current issue of NEA Arts. Just go to our website, arts.gov.
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