Roadside Culture Stands

March 1, 2010

The concept intrigued me, but when I finally saw the first Roadside Culture Stand its appeal was clear.  It looked cute from a distance and downright magnetic when stocked with veggies and cool art.  Hook it up to your trusty steed and go.  (A pick-up truck works well, too.)  Set it up at a festival in the city of near a state park in the countryside.  It looked…..well………..fun!

In southwest Wisconsin we get into discussions about locally-produced food, art and the like appealing to the same folks.  It’s not all academic, these deliberations happen at tourism and economic development meetings.  If we want folks to visit, what are those “clusters” of things they might enjoy?

The folks at the Wormfarm Institute have been on to elements of this dialogue for some time, as their mission is dedicated to integrating culture and agriculture.  Their website notes that they are “….an evolving laboratory of the arts and ecology and fertile ground for creative work. Planting a seed, cultivating, reaping what you sow . . . both farmer and artist have these activities in common”.  So it’s a natch that they would come up with the culture stand idea.

Roadside Culture Stands are artist-designed and built mobile farm stands that will be used to display and sell fresh local produce as well as the work of local artists.  “The Roadside Culture Stand tangibly unites art and farming,” said Donna Neuwirth of Wormfarm, “reminding us that culture surrounds our food and food imbues our culture.”

Artists, Wormfarm Resident Artists and volunteers help kids and adults make giant puppets from recycled materials for Reedsburg's Reedikulous Puppet Festival

The culture stands are part of a larger initiative of the Wormfarm Institute. The Re-enchantment of Agriculture explores the places where human imagination, experiments in sustainability, community well-being, and creative excitement, all converge. The Roadside Culture Stand project is such a convergence.  The hybrid nature of these stands allows communities to benefit economically, promotes cultural tourism, and in rural areas reinforces the message to ‘Eat the View’- a concept that makes the point to local residents and tourists alike – if you want to preserve the scenic beauty of agricultural landscapes, then eat from the food chain that created them.

The culture stands will vend local produce during the height of the Wisconsin growing season: mid June – October.  The stands will also serve as informational ‘kiosks’ that will attract and direct passersby to other area agricultural and cultural attractions. (i.e. other roadside stands, concerts in the park, on farm sales, restaurants that feature local farm products, cheese factories, etc.)

One stand has been built and tested, and three more are being constructed.  Plans call for two to be placed in rural venues in Iowa and Sauk counties.  Inner-city Milwaukee will have a stand, maybe two, located in “food deserts”, or places with little or no access to fresh, healthy food, but often served by plenty of processed food or fast food restaurants.

The new stands are being built through a generous and farsighted grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board.  Wormfarm has commissioned the construction, all three to be built on 5 X 10’ trailers provided by the Institute.  Wormfarm looked for artistic excellence in design, context, innovation and spirit of community collaboration when they selected the artists to build the stands.  The first one looks so cool, I can’t wait to see the design of the next three.

The roadside stand is a much beloved icon of America drawing on the power of the roadside attraction and the public’s yearning for authenticity.  Through a combination of affection and novelty the culture stand might do what stores cannot – it can be entertainment and outdoor recreation attracting those who may have no particular philosophical or environmental reason to “buy local”. This fun experience holds the promise of diversifying and growing the customer base for anything grown or made local.

The Wormfarm Institute facilitated the creation of murals in Reedsburg, including this one on the side of the old woolen mill.

Michael Bell, chair of the Agro-ecology program and professor of Rural Sociology at UW-Madison says, “This is a tremendous idea – one of those ideas that, once you hear it, you wonder why no one has thought of it or done it before. It both adds value and adds ‘values’ in the plural. What I mean is it promotes agricultural livelihoods through showcasing the produce of Wisconsin farms, while at the same time promoting the values of the beauty and sustainability of Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape. Even more than that, the Culture Stands connect the two, the value with the values, showing how each can promote the other with messages like “eat the view…”

So we’re hoping the Roadside Culture Stands bring a new audience connected with summer tourism, which takes us back to these conversations community developers are having.   Will tourists come for mix of great art and luscious foods in an environment steeped in history and natural beauty?  Can we bolster our economy without a water slide?

Will a stand in a Milwaukee food desert become an oasis for nutrition of the mind as well as body and become a cultural connection for neighborhood people?

The first Roadside Culture Stand in action

As this project evolves, the Roadside Culture Stands will test the collaborative possibilities of utilizing the arts as a marketing vehicle for local farmers’ products.  And both together as a slice of the bigger cultural/historic tourism pie.

One last note – there is an opportunity to be part of all this.  ArtsBuild, the regional arts agency of southwest Wisconsin, is seeking someone to operate the already constructed Roadside Culture Stand pictured in this article.  The target area is rural Iowa County.  Got ideas?  Contact ArtsBuild at spelicc@uwplatt.edu or 608-342-1314.

If you want to learn more about Wormfarm or the Roadside Culture Stand project contact Donna Neuwirth at wormfarm@jvlnet.com or visit their website.

Don’t miss Arts Day – March 3rd.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)