From the Ground Up

How farming changed a city couple’s whole concept of poop, pee, and decay.

By Cara Jepsen

Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth never planned to become farmers. Eight years ago they were living the bohemian life in a 6,000-square-foot ballroom in Pilsen, where Neuwirth ran a design company specializing in props, scenery, and special-event installation. Salinas, a sculptor, had a studio in the ballroom, taught art at the Marwen Foundation, and worked at a building restoration company.

“The lady above us owned a traveling zoo,” says Neuwirth. “There was an armadillo nibbling on my feet when I signed the lease. There were monkeys and a bear and people were dropping off pets all the time. I admired a puppy she had in her arms, and she said, ‘Here, take it.'”

That’s when their perspective on city life started to change. “We were taking our lovely puppy out to pee and stepping over drunks and broken glass,” says Neuwirth. “Outings to take the dog out for a walk were more and more dispiriting.”

So when they saw a classified ad in the paper for a farm three and a half hours away in southwest Wisconsin, they decided to check it out. “It was in the high five figures,” says Salinas, but they weren’t serious shoppers anyway. “We were looking for an excuse to get out of town.”

The farm turned out to be pretty nice–“too nice,” says Salinas. “When we saw what that price would buy, we became intrigued.” On the way home they found a realtor in Reedsburg, a town of 7,000 people 50 miles northwest of Madison. “He said, ‘I know what you want. Forty acres. A fixer-upper house. Some tillage. Hills, woods, and outbuildings.'”

The two started driving north regularly on the weekends to look at farms. “It was an excuse to leave town and travel the back roads,” says Salinas. “Once we went back and forth, the contrast started getting to us–how beautiful it was to romp around in the Wisconsin countryside and then driving back to cold, gray, dirty, concrete Chicago every night.”

Slowly but surely their search became purposeful, and in early 1993, after looking at 50 farms scattered across Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, they found a keeper. “It wasn’t our dream farm,” says Salinas. “It was a compromise. But it was close to Reedsburg, which we found to be a viable little town. Other places were more beautiful, but there was no way to make a living if someone had to. There were other little problems, but it felt like time was running out. We had saved up our down payment, and decided it was time to make a move.”

Not that they had a clue about what they would do once they got there. Their combined agricultural experience consisted of “growing two tomato plants in five-gallon buckets on the fire escape,” Salinas likes to say. His parents are from the Back of the Yards neighborhood, “where they may have seen a cow or two, though hanging headless from a meat hook.” Neuwirth, who grew up “all over the place,” came to Chicago in 1973 to study theater at the Goodman School of Drama. Before she was born, her father managed the road show for Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule.

“There wasn’t really a plan at all,” says Salinas, “though we did have some romantic ideas about living off grid and generating our own power from wind or solar. We talked about fish farming at one point–things we’d read about, but nothing we really knew about.”

They spent several weeks commuting back and forth and making the place habitable before moving in. “We didn’t want to appear to be suspicious city folks, so we didn’t do a final walk-through before closing,” says Salinas. “The place was full of stacked newspapers, dirty underwear, empty boxes, milk jugs, and things like that.”

That first summer, Salinas got a job running the arts and crafts pavilion at a nearby camp, where he “was ten years older than most of my peers.” Neuwirth found work as a kitchen designer in nearby Baraboo, and talked Salinas into planting a garden.

“I wasn’t particularly happy about it,” he says. “I was trying to hack our garden out of ground that hadn’t been grazed or tilled or even mowed for 20 years….I was putting seeds in the ground and muttering to myself that it was stupid and wouldn’t work.” But the 50-foot garden produced vegetables all summer long, and the following year they tripled its size. They dubbed the place the Neu Erth Wormfarm, after a quote by Charles Darwin: “Every fertile grain of soil has passed at least once through the gut of an earthworm.”

“We’d always imagined we would try to find some way to utilize the land to make the farm pay for itself, instead of having 40 acres and working somewhere else to hold on to the land,” says Salinas. “But we were sketchy on what that might actually entail.”

Their friends suggested they raise oxen or start a bed and breakfast. But they decided on organic farming after someone sent them a Reader article about an organic farm in northeastern Illinois that operated as a CSA, short for “community-supported agriculture,” where subscribers bought “shares” of the summer crop. “People paid in advance of the season to be members, so [the farmers] got the money up front,” says Salinas.

They learned everything they could about CSAs, and a neighbor plowed a bigger garden in their front yard. The pair convinced 17 of their Chicago acquaintances to buy in. For about $400 a share, these charter subscribers were promised 10 to 12 pounds of fresh organic vegetables and herbs every Sunday from June to October. (Salinas and Neuwirth also offered half shares.)

“Plunging into these things, our ignorance wasn’t quite total, but it was significant,” says Salinas; he and Neuwirth say the only reasons they’ve made it as far as they have are luck, pluck, and help from their neighbors. “It’s a recurring motif with us, getting in over our heads with something and working our way out.”

Salinas made the first Chicago delivery himself. Most people are accustomed to bright, perfect-looking vegetables from the store, and he wanted to explain why organic vegetables look different.

“It could have been a disaster,” he says. “One of the things that we stress is that there’s an ebb and flow to the season. In June, the harvest is very small. People have paid their money, in some cases $400, and the first week comes and it’s a couple bunches of radishes and green onions–that can be kind of worrisome.” Then two days before delivery, Salinas got into some poison ivy. “I had oozing sores on my face as I was delivering these people’s vegetables. But since they were friends of ours, we could get away with it.”

It wasn’t practical for Salinas to be driving back and forth every weekend, so they hit on the idea of using the duplex farmhouse’s second-floor apartment and having subscribers do the schlepping for them. A few subscribers would drive up on Saturday, stay overnight, and tote the vegetables back to one or two (now four) drop-off points on Sunday afternoon.

“This was a way for people to spend the weekend and relax and breathe and run around in the hay,” says Neuwirth. “It would sort of compensate for taking the food back.” What they didn’t realize was that their logistical problem solver would become the farm’s attraction. “Our neighbor Jeff just howled with laughter when he heard that people pay us in advance for the privilege of coming up here and hauling vegetables back,” says Neuwirth. “It’s like Tom Sawyer–turning a chore into something people pay money for.”

Though the broccoli crop failed that year, their first season ended up being almost too successful. “People were complaining that we were sending them too much, and threatening to come up and kill our zucchini plants,” says Salinas. “But if we’d had a really bad experience, we might not have done it again for a second year.”

Now in its sixth season of business, the Wormfarm has ten local subscribers and 50 from the Chicago area. City customers are each required to visit the farm once during the summer. To make their stays more interesting, Neuwirth–a farm auction addict–has filled the three-bedroom apartment with tchotchkes. There’s the Cheese Room, filled with thrift-store art, clowns, monkey figurines, and a Swiss-cheese-stenciled wall border; the Chinese Room, which started out full of Chinese knickknacks but becomes more minimalist every time one of them breaks; and Gramma’s Room, furnished with antiques and its namesake, a cardboard cutout of an elderly woman left over from Neuwirth’s special-event days. Gramma used to be part of an Italian street scene in the window of Carlucci’s on Halsted; now she rests in an antique rocking chair. But “it’s surprising how many times we open the door and find Gramma stuffed in the closet,” Neuwirth says. “She spooks people.”

Subscribers are encouraged to bring Chicago newspapers with them, so Salinas and Neuwirth can keep up with city life. On Saturday night they often set up a communal meal–a smorgasbord of fresh-picked vegetables and whatever food visiting subscribers have brought up from the city–on a backyard picnic table. When nightfall comes, there’s often a walk to the top of a nearby hill to look at the stars.

Subscribers can also help in the garden, haunt estate sales, or get to know the farm’s menagerie, which includes three goats, some sheep, chickens, dogs, and a horse named Guy. “Unless the weather’s crummy,” says Neuwirth. “Then they can visit the Circus World Museum in Baraboo or the Crane Foundation [the nearby wild-bird sanctuary].”

This direct, weekly communication with subscribers is unusual, even among CSAs. “It’s not a field day once or twice a year where 50 or 100 people mill around,” says Salinas. And it’s not always easy on the farm’s owners.

“It can be stressful having people up here every week,” says Salinas. “There’s also the fact that if we sent out something bad one week, they’re going to come up and tell us about it. But it also works the other way. It’s rewarding to hear your efforts appreciated every week, and if things are not going well it’s good to be reminded of that too. It really vests them in the process. They know why something went wrong–they can actually see it.”

They’ve purposely kept the size of the farm limited to 50-odd subscribers, who pay $430 for a full share or $250 for a half. “Over the years we’ve found that people who make [their sole living this way] usually need to have over 100 subscribers,” says Neuwirth. “When you’re doing that, you have to talk about having full-time employees, and that would change the dynamics.”

Instead, Neuwirth works part-time for a local kitchen design firm, where she has insurance, and which, she says, “gets me off the farm and around other kinds of people.” On the farm, she schedules subscriber visits and edits a weekly newsletter, the Stalk Market Report, which is filled with recipes, farm news, vegetable facts, and guest columns written by subscribers. She also does maid duty and packs the vegetables each Sunday. Salinas manages the garden and livestock and teaches art at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and elsewhere. He finds time to sculpt in the winter.

“The garden and all this surrounding stuff is art,” he says, only half joking. “It’s site-specific sculpture.”

In fact, Salinas has become quite a serious gardener over the past seven years, and says that “in many ways it gives me the same satisfaction as stuff I make in the studio.” Both his art and his garden, he says, are “about harnessing nature or taking advantage of natural processes and creating a format for phenomena to occur.” As at other CSAs, all Wormfarm produce is grown using organic methods. “We don’t try to obliterate pests [with insecticide or herbicide]. We just want our plants to grow a little bit better than the weeds do.”

One strategy Salinas uses is companion planting–pairing plants that benefit each other, such as peas and oats (oats give peas shelter and smother weeds, while peas enrich the soil). And each year, Salinas takes a quarter of the garden out of commission and plants it with soil-building crops such as grass and oats. All spoiled vegetables and manure from the animals go into the compost pile, which can make for “fantastic” soil, says Salinas.

In one Stalk Market Report column, Neuwirth writes, “The change in outlook from life in the city to life on the farm can be exemplified by this belief: poop, death and decay WERE BAD. Now, poop, death and decay are GOOD.” Even human waste is useful; Salinas regularly urinates on the outer perimeter of the garden, away from the food crop. “It’s supposed to keep away deer and rabbits,” he says. “I don’t know if it works, but we’re not bothered by any.”

Each year, they’ve had at least one crop failure. “The way it works is that if you’re growing all of these different things, if conditions are bad for one thing, they’re probably ideal for another,” says Salinas. “Heat is bad for broccoli and cauliflower but good for tomatoes and peppers. We sort of lay out a potential scenario. The chances of something failing are pretty good, but the chances of a lot of things failing are not.”

They recently started keeping bees, to help pollinate the vine plants. They’ve also experimented with grazing cows in the pasture to help rough up and fertilize the soil. Though they were “marginal vegetarians” before moving north, that all changed a few years ago when someone gave them 70 unwanted chicks. They started raising lambs the same way–after a neighbor brought them some orphans.

“We had them a couple of years before we…thought about them pulling their weight instead of being fluffy lawn ornaments,” says Salinas. They started breeding their hand-me-down animals, and subscribers can now order organic chickens and lambs.

“It was a real learning experience for us,” says Neuwirth. “We are directly involved in the lives and deaths of these animals, and they’re directly involved in all of our lives. Soil nutrients come from somewhere–either excrement or decay, from beings either dying or shitting. You can’t exclude yourself from that cycle and say, ‘I’m only going to be this part of the process.'”

The pair like to talk about connecting culture and agriculture, urban and rural, people and land–or what they refer to as “the Big Idea.” To that end, they’ve had students from the city up to the farm, both to create site-specific work and to visit local outsider artists such as Dr. Evermor, near Baraboo. They also offer residencies in which artists can stay on the farm in exchange for working in the garden and around the farm.

Last year Salinas led a couple of three-day workshops on pouring iron. For the past four years they’ve also invited locals, subscribers, and artists to a fall harvest festival, using the barn, which they had reroofed last year, as a performance and exhibition space. As part of the festival, they create a “scapegoat” out of twigs and baling twine and burn it in a bonfire, and guests are encouraged to bring effigies of things they want to purge.

This custom hasn’t always gone over well with the locals. One of Salinas’s students from Stevens Point, who was into white magic, once read from a book he’d made and then tossed it into the fire. “It was completely innocent,” says Salinas. “But when this kid cast the book into the flames, our local subscribers, a very handsome young family, started gathering their kids up to go. We explained they’re just these college kids. They said, ‘We know what that’s all about. We went to school in Madison.’ As if that would explain it.”

Another time a visiting artist made an installation of doll parts in the barn. “One day during sheep shearing a neighbor poked his head in and saw the baby-doll vignettes set up,” says Salinas. “He had some questions about it. Then he talked it over with his brothers and decided it wasn’t anything serious. It was one of those ‘What are they doing over there?’ kinds of things.”

Earlier this year Salinas and Neuwirth formed a not-for-profit organization, the Wormfarm Institute, which will allow them to apply for grants in order to offer more workshops, classes, and educational events. “I think it’s important for people to meet people outside their usual sphere of reference,” says Neuwirth. “People don’t know they have preconceived notions until they’ve seen them shattered. I’d like to provide an opportunity for those types of interaction. But I don’t necessarily want to orchestrate them.”

Ultimately, Salinas says, rural and city people are on the same side. “Farmers want to grow food and get a good price for it. Consumers want to get safe, healthy food and pay a good price for it. [It’s] the entities in the middle [that] seem to benefit by keeping everyone suspicious of one another.”

Still, Neuwirth and Salinas continue to identify themselves as gardeners rather than farmers. “We’re resisting becoming full-time farmers, in one way, out of respect for farmers,” says Salinas. “We’re too ignorant and lazy to be real farmers.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.