In Viroqua, a small educational anomaly has found its footing in the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Founded in 2006, the Driftless Folk School has brought more and more students west to experience its creative and alternative classes.
The exact definition of a folk school varies among states and regions depending on local values and customs. The Driftless Folk School is one of several in the country, others are located in the Door County region of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida.
Loosely, a folk school is a supportive community of teachers and learners who come together to share ideas, traditions and skills. Classes focus on sustainability, living in harmony and hands-on activities.
To learn what a class at a folk school is like, I attended one: “Beyond Cabbage: Fermentation for the Late Harvest Season.”
Taught by Heidi Krattiger and Bjorn Bergman, the three-and-a-half hour class held at a Viroqua High School was designed to give even novices the courage to try the process at home. During the initial session, we tasted a delightful sampling of items from Krattiger and Bergman’s own reserve. The couple offered cherry tomatoes, ramp bulbs, coriander, bean paste and raspberries — each with its own unique tang.
After the tasting, we received two demonstrations on starting a ferment — one with cabbage and the other with sweet potato. The final hour was designated for experimenting with vegetables from the couple’s own garden and the local co-op.
We swapped techniques and chatted among ourselves while chopping, squeezing and salting vegetables, preparing to seal them into sterile canning jars at the end of the class. When the hour concluded, we took these ferments home to nurse over the coming days and weeks.
The most important lesson Krattiger and Bergman impressed upon us is fermentation is a fun process that can yield tasty results, especially when traditional ingredients are abandoned for audacious ones.
It can also save food from going to waste. As Krattiger noted after the class, “We started to realize we were beyond normal when we noticed that not everyone kept homemade fermented items in their fridge.”
This epiphany is what led them to the folk school, aware that their quirky talent for pickling everything from lemons to sweet potatoes might interest local residents.
The “folk” aspect of their talent lies in the way it was acquired — by absorbing knowledge passed on by other practitioners. The couple have attended classes at the Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge and Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg. They also own books on the subject such as Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation.
Krattiger and Bergman say they have taught at the school for a year and the most recent class was their largest. They separately teach classes, such as “Growing Greens Year Round,” “Low Tunnel Design” and “Holiday Baking.”
In addition to these classes, the Driftless Folk School offers other opportunities, ranging from autumn beekeeping to spoon carving, woodworking to contra dance. Most of these are held in homes and in other local venues because the school does not yet have a unified campus that can accommodate a growing number of students, more than 600 in 2015.
True, many of its classes are designed around the schedules of the residents of Viroqua and the surrounding area, known for its robust farmers markets and thriving arts scene. But it is not just a school for locals. If you are a student with a genuine desire to learn, you will be greeted enthusiastically no matter where you come from.
For more, visit driftlessfolkschool.org or call 608-632-3348.