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Fern Fest Women's Music Festival Is Moving, But Staying True to Its Inclusive Roots

Weeklong event celebrates music, nature and the feminine spirit

Change is in the air for Michigan’s Fern Fest, a six-day women’s music festival that has experienced rapid growth since its first ever gathering in 2022.

Built on the foundation of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (aka Michfest), a 40-year tradition that ended in 2015, Fern Fest, set for July 9-14, is in its third year and moving to a new location. Smiling Acres, in Trufant, Michigan, 36 miles north of Grand Rapids, allows organizers the ability to increase capacity and make space for more people.

While Fern Fest is leaving The Land, which was home to the previous festival, festival producer Abra Wise said the move has been exciting because Smiling Acres already hosts music festivals and the infrastructure exists for them to step in with a built-in stage, upgraded sound system and lighting.

Fern Fest, Wise said, is designed to be a time of connection and healing for women, non-binary and trans folks as they spend a week listening to music in the woods, off the grid and disconnected from everyday life.

“Just having a new venue and a new space feels like a clean slate of so much possibility,” Wise said. “The Land was so wonderful and so beautiful for the first two years. It’s the place that we birthed Fern Fest and really got our feet wet starting to build our community. But to have this new space and all the possibilities is really exciting.”

Smiling Acres is less secluded than the previous location, allowing for greater accessibility for those with disabilities or physical limitations, a priority for Fern Fest’s organizers — all stage performances will be interpreted for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. 

Camping at Fern Fest. Photo: Ilana Bar-Av
Camping at Fern Fest. Photo: Ilana Bar-Av

Wise understands and supports those who create different spaces but it was important to her that Fern Fest be a fully inclusive gathering for all women, non-binary and trans folks and those who live on the spectrum of the feminine spirit.

In other words, you don’t have to have been assigned female at birth to be welcome at Fern Fest. The gates are open to nonbinary and trans women — and to anyone who identifies as a woman.

“I wanted an umbrella,” Wise told Pride Source. “It really is everyone showing up authentically, how they are and who they are. It's been really, really well received. We’ve had such a great support system from everyone in the community.”

Another foundational value of Fern Fest, Wise said, is to engage in anti-racism work and to create a safer environment for BIPOC participants. Founded at Fern Fest in 2022, the (QT)BIPOC/Global Majority Collective is one of the festival organizers. It grew out of the legacy of the Women of Color Sanctuary Tent at MichFest and seeks to continue its traditions. 

While they are a festival organizer and coordinate with Fern Fest, the Collective is also a separate organization that operates independently, planning all the music and workshops in their space. On the Fern Fest website, it notes that “our language is changing to welcome and include additional facets of our identities while also acknowledging and centering Black and indigenous — embracing the terms BIPOC/QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and Global Majority.”

“It's a beautiful space for BIPOC people to go and have their own community within a community,” Wise said. 

And then, of course, there's the music. Wise, a musician herself, said that finding new artists is her favorite part of organizing the festival. “My passion in this is the music,” Wise said. “I get excited about being able to find new artists. I don't book artists two years in a row.”

Abra Wise. Photo: michiganfernfest.com
Abra Wise. Photo: michiganfernfest.com

Wise said that as much as she loves the performers who come to the festival every year, she recognizes the breadth of musicians. She sees Fern Fest as an opportunity for music lovers to connect with new artists they’ve never heard before. "It really pushes me as a producer to not get complacent,” Wise said. “I’m always reaching out to other musician friends and [asking them] to send me new artists. Now that we have a few years under our belts, we have a lot of musicians that apply.”

Another important goal for Wise is to diversify the music genres at the festival. You won't hear just folk or country festival. In fact, you might also see and hear comedians, poets and spoken word artists. After an opening concert on Wednesday night, Wise said they’ll typically have three performances each day, two at night and then a DJ. 

As an avid festivalgoer herself, Wise said an element that makes Fern Fest special is how long it runs. Over nearly a week, participants have a chance to pitch their tent and take time to be present before having to pack up and leave again.

Fern Fest. Photo: Ilana Bar-Av
Fern Fest. Photo: Ilana Bar-Av

Fostering a sense of community and growth, she said, is why they have workshops and other activities happening beyond the onstage acts. The setting provides a place for rustic camping (though nearby hotels can accommodate those who want more creature comforts) and a place for people to unplug and meet other like-minded individuals.

“It’s an experience like no other,” Wise said. “You don’t know until you come for the week. The thing that excites me the most is to see the healing, the friendships formed and the community building. In the first two years of Fern Fest, there are so many people who have fallen in love and now are couples. It fills me with joy to think that people are finding their people there.”

Fern Fest takes place from July 9-14. Visit michiganfernfest.com for more information. Tickets will go on sale in April when the line-up is announced.

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