Fern Fest Resuscitates the Best of MichFest, With All Folks Welcome

Photos by Natasha Bar-Av

When the legendary Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest held its final event in 2015 after 40 years, many thought it signaled the end of the era of feminist gatherings. But some who had worked “The Land”—a 650-acre plot of pristine woods in rural Michigan—could see that it was time to revisit the “womyn-born-womyn” policy that folks found exclusionary. 

So, in 2017, a nonprofit known as We Want the Land Coalition entered into a contract with Lisa Vogel to purchase “The Land,” with the intention of making it accessible to women who want to organize events. 

Last year, producer Abra Wise used the land to hold the first annual Fern Fest, a safe and inclusive musical festival for all women (cis, trans, non-binary, BIPOC, Deaf/HOH, women with disabilities) to foster connection, community, and belonging. 

Queerful caught up with her amid her preparations of booking acts for this year’s Fern Fest, scheduled for August 1-6. She hopes the scaled-down festival will prove to be a diverse and inclusive space for all kinds of women. 

Winnie McCroy:  Tell us a little bit about you, and how you’re entering the beginning of this process, and what you’re trying to build. 

Abra Wise: I attended Mitch Fest from 2010–2015, so that’s my home and where I’ve met some of my dearest loved ones and it’s so dear to my heart. So that land is really special to me. 

WM: It sounds like you have a good background going into this. Are you doing this from Michigan or launching it from another area? 

Producer Abra Wise

AW: I live in Austin, Texas, so I do all my work from here, but I travel a lot so I do it from the road as well. I have my business partner, Susan Doss; she’s my number two and we’ve been working on this. We joke that I’m the front, and she’s the back, and she does a ton. We work so cohesively and smoothly together, and it’s been so fun to do this with her. And she’s in Michigan. So we’re on Zoom meetings twice a week planning this festival. Last year was 12 months of… laying the foundation, getting an LLC, doing the business stuff, doing all of the contracts—everything new starting from scratch. So going into the second year is just a little easier in the sense of all those things are already done. And now we’re just kind of leaning more into year two and how to build on our first year and be more creative and see what we can take into the second year. 

WM: And I understand that you are holding Fern Fest on “The Land” that MichFest was held on?

AW:   Yes, it’s on the same exact land as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was for 40 years. MichFest had up to 10,000 attendees at one point over the 40 years. Probably 100,000 women have at some point been on that land. I mean, that might be a stretch, but there were thousands and thousands. And  a big part of the draw to have events there now is that there are so many women that want to return that haven’t been back since it ended in 2015.

WM: And I believe it was Nedra Johnson and her cohort that wanted to keep “The Land” as a place for gatherings and festivals. 

AW:  Yes, absolutely. Nedra is the vice president of WWTLC, which stands for We Want the Land Coalition. They were the organization that formed to start taking over the land in 2016; basically, they’re buying the land from Lisa Vogel, the producer of MichFest. They decided that they were gonna do whatever it takes to save the land and get it paid off so that it’s preserved and we can have it forever for all different types of events. So, Nedra is the vice president, and she also does her own event over the summer called Big Mouth Girl. 

WM:  That’s great. And so you’re working with that team to secure Lisa’s land or are they letting you use the land? How does that work?

AW:  It’s like a venue rental, basically. They have the land, and we signed a contract saying, “Hey, we’re going to rent this land from you for the six days, five nights and do our festival.” And they provide basic amenities: the Porta-Janes and the tents and stuff like that. But it’s still very primitive camping.

WM:  I remember.

AW:  You know, they give us the basics and then the rest is up to us to bring the festival and all the stuff we want to do.

WM:  That’s great. So, talking about the festival and all the stuff you want to do: what kind of incarnation did Fern Fest prove to be as you were setting up the festival? Is it similar to MichFest? Or is it something with your own imprimatur on it?

AW:  Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s inevitable that it’s going to be compared because the setup is very similar: there’s music all day, there’s workshops, there’s a crafts area. The structure is so similar that a lot of people are like, “Oh, it’s the new MichFest.” But there’s a lot of differences to set us apart. And one of the biggest things is that Fern Fest is openly and directly trans-inclusive. And that’s a big, big difference from MichFest. There’s a whole history of around the trans issue, and so for Fern Fest, one of the main points is the organization has made it clear that anyone who applies for an event can choose whether they want it to be women-born-women or trans-inclusive, which is amazing that the organization is open to that. They’re supportive, and it’s wonderful. So I think that’s a pretty big difference.

One of the biggest things is that Fern Fest is openly and directly trans-inclusive. And that’s a big, big difference from MichFest. 

WM:  Absolutely. So what I’m hearing is that you’re allowing individual workshop vendors to be like, “This is a workshop only for transgender or cisgender women,” and that is embraced by the participants. Is that okay? Because I know that a big part of why Michigan had to wrap up was because there were two different ideologies at work.

AW: Sure, it seems to be working. 

WM:  That’s great. I wanted to ask because I remember one of the last years I came was when they had Camp Trans across the street from the Michigan Festival. It did cost a lot of consternation, and I’ve seen this conversation playing out in other women’s gatherings that I’ve attended over how do we create a space that is safe for women who don’t always necessarily want to be around male energy. The best resolution I have seen is at a festival that said, this is a gathering for women who live and identify full-time as a woman. And if this doesn’t describe you, then maybe it’s not the place for you. 

AW:  Mm-hmm, sure.

WM:  And I wanted to ask if you had any caveats like that, or if anybody who is on the spectrum of genderqueer or non-binary can just feel free to, you know… if this resonates with you, you come to this festival.

AW:  Yeah, it really is. It really is like that, you know, you define that for yourself.

WM:  I think part of what helped swing the pendulum back in Michigan—and to be fair, the conversation around gender identity and expression has really opened up very much in the past 10 years a sea change from where we were—but I think that in the later days in Michigan, some people would go up to trans men who presented as male and be like, “Why are you here? This is not for you.” And I think when people are looking for a space to fit in, that’s not a message they want to hear. So it’s nice to see that people get to define this for themself and that you’re still providing safe spaces for women who want to only be with other cisgender women or only want to be with other non-binary people or who only want to be with other trans women. It’s a tough situation, and I think that you are handling it with elegance. So, kudos.

AW:  Thank you. We sure are trying and you know, letting people define that for themselves feels really important. And the great thing about what the organization is doing is over the last two or three years is they had six different events. This will be the first summer where they’re cutting it down, so there’s gonna be four different events on the land. And the wonderful thing is that you can choose. We kind of hope that with what we put out for the messaging for Fern Fest, it’s more self-selection: people reading the message and going, that’s not for me and just not coming. And then choosing a different event that resonates more with them, which is also wonderful. I think it just really works so well for all of us because if one is not for you, you can pick a different one.

WM:  So, there are whole other festivals that people can plug into that might meet their needs more, if this one doesn’t?

AW:  Yes, yes.

WM:  Well, that’s great. Now, we got the hard conversation done, so let’s talk about the fun part. What is your programming looking like; who’s playing? And How are people interacting with these workshops? What can people expect to see when they go to Fern Fest?

AW:  I’m right in the middle of booking for this year. So, we won’t mention any names yet because the lineup will be out in late March, which we’re excited about. The structure is gonna be very similar to last year. We had comedians, poets, and a lot of musicians. We had a dance and DJs every night because I know that everybody loves to dance. The beginning of the week when people arrive are the slower days. And then by Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, It is full-on from morning ‘til night. So, it’s a pretty packed festival. Workshops are kind of all over the map: dance, writing, workshops on gender identity, and those types of things. It’s a full schedule but it’s not busy like MichFest, where there were thousands of women and so many workshops going on at the same time I always felt like I was missing things.

WM:  FOMO all day long.

AW:  Exactly. I hated missing things and so I was like, maybe I don’t make so many things happen at the same time. That’s kind of the fun part; to take the things that I liked and implement them into my own festival. So, there are lots of workshops, but again, a few at a time—just enough that people can get that experience and still be able to go off and do other things, because I think we all know that the programming is very important, but festivals are also about the time with people and the wandering around campsites and waking up and having coffee and just meeting up with people. I kind of want there to be that balance that everyone has the opportunity to do that and doesn’t feel like they’re missing the whole festival if they’re hanging with their friends.

WM:  That sounds fantastic. I know there’s a lot of people who just want to hang out under the big tree for a while and catch up with their friends…

AW: Yep.

WM:  Sometimes, at least for me, I have these festival friends I see only once a year. There’s a festival I’ve been going to since I was 19 years old, and I’m 50 now. So you know those are people that I see there only or…maybe online now that there’s the Internet. But those are relationships I’d cultivated over time, and you want to reconnect with them and have those experiences and not have to cram it in. And so, your restraint is admirable.

AW:  Thank you.

It really is about creating a safe space for everyone and making room for everyone to come and feel like they can do their healing and have fun and meet people.

WM: This is your second year. Where are you at this point? Is it time for people to register? Have you picked up the weekend that is going to be and what are the details as far as where people get tickets?

AW:  It’s August 1st through the 6th and that’s Tuesday through Sunday. Our dates are set, and we put 100 early bird tickets up for sale last week, which sold out in six hours. And now, regular general admission tickets are on sale. We’re up and running.

WM:  That’s great. And just, as we wrap it up, have you seen any skewing toward younger folks, or older folks? Or is it still farily mixed, as it was with MichFest?

AW:   Overall it’s a very good mix. We’re starting to bring in a little bit of the younger generations. I think especially around the trans inclusivity—that is the trend of where we’re going. But last year, I think there was an 80-year-old attendee. So it’s a really great mix and our biggest focus for this whole festival really is not just to be trans-inclusive, but just accessibility and inclusivity for all, and making sure that it’s diverse in all ways and all genres of music. And the women of color sanctuary is still strong and we have a wonderful team that is rebuilding that in the same way. It’s still there in the roots, but how do we create a newer, different version of the sanctuary? It’s fun and there’s music and all these things. But it really is about creating what feels like a safe space for everyone and making room for everyone to come and feel like they can do their healing and have fun and meet people. That’s our biggest goal for sure.

WM:  Well, that’s wonderful. I feel like I feel like that’s a really great place to end our conversation on this high note of welcoming to the entire community and I wish you guys a lot of luck on your festival. 

Michigan Fern Fest will be held from August 1-6, 2023 in Michigan. For information, visit michiganfernfest.com/

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