This story originally appeared in the May 2023 edition of the River Falls Reader, the City's digital newsletter. Subscribe here.
“It’s like the State Fair!”
An awe-struck community member uttered those words as they glimpsed the ballroom full of buzzing people at the UWRF University Center on Saturday, April 22, for Earth Fest 2023.
The annual event, first held in April 2022, is co-hosted by Hope for Creation, the City of River Falls, University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF), the School District of River Falls, and several other local organizations. The River Falls Area Chamber of Commerce also served as a partner on this year’s event, coordinating with the Earth Fest Planning Committee to share a shuttle service to connect the event with the 2023 Bluegrass, Bourbon, and Blues Festival.
Earth Fest 2023, which drew a crowd of around 2,000 people, featured a sustainability and wellness fair with 80 exhibitors – nearly double the amount of 2022. Like the inaugural celebration, this year’s event featured free samples of sustainable food, a clothing swap, live music, and hands-on activities for all ages, including seed planting, making non-toxic household cleaner, and riding the “smoothie bike” – a special bike that harnesses cyclists’ pedaling energy to mechanically power a blender.
“Earth Fest was an incredibly effective means for us to get the word out to thousands about the benefits of joining our cycling club,” Wendy Stocker, member of New Richmond-based Big Ring Flyers, said. “We passed out hundreds of informational cards and had several people interested in signing up.”
“Because of the huge attendance at the event, we were able to give out 740 wildflower seed packets,” Linda Yde, River Falls Rotary Club member, added. “If even half of the recipients plant the seeds, what an impact we can make on our environment.”
While the event was originally planned to take place outside at Glen Park, the Earth Fest Planning Committee made the call on Thursday, April 20, to move it to the UWRF University Center – their “plan B.” With a cold and wet weather forecast hovering over April 22, the team felt being indoors was the best way to ensure exhibitors and attendees were comfortable.
“I think it ended up being the greatest strength of this year’s event,” Tom Westerhaus, Earth Fest co-chair and Hope for Creation member, said. “A lot of communities would die to have a college campus in their town. Bringing 2,000 people of all ages to the University Center was a really effective reminder that UWRF is a resource not just for students, but for everyone.”
The first seeds for Earth Fest were planted in 2021 within the walls of Hope for Creation, a River Falls based interfaith organization that aims to create a hopeful, ecologically sustainable future for the community through collaboration, education, partnerships, advocacy, and action. The City, UWRF, and the School District are official partner organizations with Hope for Creation.
“We were getting a lot of requests from people to do events,” Mike Noreen, City of River Falls Forester, Conservation and Efficiency Coordinator, and Hope for Creation member, said. “People were asking, ‘Can you do something on composting? Transportation? Bees? We see ourselves mainly as conveners, so we decided to put it all together.”
River Falls as the setting for such an event felt natural. In 2020, the City of River Falls became the first municipality in the state of Wisconsin to power its buildings with 100% renewable energy, and in 2023, it ranked second in the nation for percentage of utility customers opting into its green energy programs. The City also holds the designations of Tree City, Bike City, Bird City, and Bee City.
UWRF was named a Sierra Club “cool school” in 2021 and was featured in the Princeton Review’s 2022 Guide to Green Colleges. Meanwhile, the School District recently converted all gyms and exterior lighting to 100% LED and has cultivated a 70+ acre School Forest along the Kinnickinnic River.
“Getting all of us together in a room is the coolest thing about planning Earth Fest,” Lauren Kaminski, Community Education Secretary at the School District of River Falls and Hope for Creation member, said. “Every big entity in River Falls is involved, along with so many community members. It shows how aligned our values are and how strong our shared commitment to sustainability is.”
In addition to the host organizations represented on the planning committee, volunteers were essential to the success of Earth Fest 2023, including student employees in the UWRF Sustainability Office and various UWRF sustainability student organizations.
While many elements of this year’s event were carried over from 2022, several new additions distinguished Earth Fest 2023, included all-vegan and vegetarian food samples. Items offered included vegan chili, vegan tacos, and Beyond Meat burgers and brats. In addition, Whole Earth Co-op provided hummus wraps and quinoa tabouli.
“The goal with the food was to get people to try things they might not otherwise try,” Mark Klapatch-Mathias, UWRF Sustainability Coordinator, Earth Fest co-chair, and Hope for Creation member, said. “I might not go to a restaurant and buy a $15 Beyond Burger if I don’t know if I’m going to like it. We gave people the opportunity to try it, for free, without commitment. It was just another possibility we were presenting them with for taking more sustainable action in their lives.”
Inspiring action was one of the planning committee’s primary goals for this year’s event. “Whether through food or exhibits or activities, the first step was to educate,” Westerhaus said. “The new part this year was, ‘And action.’ We can’t stop short just with educating – we also have to help guide people to put the information they’ve learned to use.”
To accomplish that end, exhibitors were asked to fill out “call to action” cards, which they displayed at their tables at the sustainability and wellness fair. As guests traveled the circuit around the University Center, they were met with messages such as, “Hope for Creation needs you to sign the sustainability pledge,” and “UWRF Sustainability Club needs you to join the Kinni Clean Up on Saturday, April 29.”
Attendees were also invited to join in an all-ages scavenger hunt, which asked them to participate in two activities, visit eight exhibitor booths, and write down the action items from each. “You basically went home with a written to-do list,” Westerhaus said.
While Earth Fest 2022 was focused primarily on environmental sustainability, the Planning Committee expanded this year’s event to include both mental and physical wellness. New exhibitors, including Tai Chi St. Croix, Healing Roots Wellness Center, and Be the Match Donor Registry, joined the sustainability and wellness fair lineup, while movement activities throughout the day centered personal wellness.
“There’s an increasing amount of research talking about how mental and physical well-being relates to our environment and our sustainability efforts,” Tovah Flygare, UWRF adjunct professor and Earth Fest Planning Committee member, said. “I think many people gained an increased awareness of that in a very positive and empowering way at Earth Fest. You’ve got that mental wellness developing from the sense of community of being among 2,000 people who share your concern and passion for sustainability and wellness, and you have the physical well-being that comes from these hands-on activities like making the cleaning spray and planting seeds… I think it’s a great integration.”
The planning committee is already at work brainstorming for Earth Fest 2024. Due to the event’s ever-growing success, they expect an even larger showing of exhibitors and attendees.
“I think there are so many groups in our community and beyond that recognize that this is a good way to educate and inspire action, and get to a large audience, so I think it’s just going to keep going,” Klapatch-Mathias said. “We’re all excited to see what that looks like.”