MSTFP Connects with its Agricultural Heritage

On a cool February afternoon, we entered the Valley Inn in Mancos, Colorado, an assisted living home off of highway 184. Amidst the chaos, we were shown to a (relatively) quiet room overlooking the back gardens. Over the next three hours we sat with people and asked: Tell us about your connection to local food production or garden education.  One part of Montezuma School to Farm Project’s mission is to connect the youth of the county with their agricultural heritage. So we went straight to the source--living sources--for a peek into nearly a century of experience. 

Forrest is 99 years-old, and was born in Farmington, New Mexico. Forrest’s’ dad was purportedly known as the “Watermelon King of San Juan County” and “no one could grow watermelon like he could.” He came from the San Luis Valley, where Forrest’s grandfather was also a farmer. Forrest, a third generation grower, continues with sparkling eyes and a big grin, “My dad was a good farmer and he raised a lot of watermelons. Good watermelons. I remember opening one and it had a heart. We scooped the heart out, and I remember ohhhh that was good. We also grew cantaloupes and honey dos.”

Forrest’s mother would care for the garden and his father would work in the field. “We grew everything- lettuce, cabbage, spinach... Even though we didn’t have much money, we ate well. We had an apple and peach orchard and we would sell them for income. We ate what we needed and we sold the rest of it to grocery stores.” Forrest served in World War II and traveled the world in the Navy. Despite decades of adventures, trials, and tales, the memories of his childhood and food production in the Four Corners area remain fresh in his mind. 

Montezuma School to Farm Project focuses not only on teaching production and land conservation, but culinary skills, like cutting, cooking, and preparing meals from garden harvests. George Lackenmann, another Valley Inn resident, shares his connection with cooking and edible education. 

George was a chef and worked in a famous French restaurant in Cincinnati called the Massionette. Though the restaurant is now closed and George is hundreds of miles from Ohio, he reminisces on the importance of fresh and local produce to make meals not only healthy, but delicious. “My wife did all of the gardening, and I was the cook,” he says. She grew a beautiful garden with kohlrabi, tomatoes, different kinds of beets, lots of peppers, and a variety of potatoes, including purple Peruvian potatoes. He especially loved the eggplants she would grow because French dishes often calls for eggplants, usually served with lamb. 

George continues, “I think American supermarkets have gone away from tasty things in favor for marketed cheap food. You have to grow your own tomatoes because the ones at the grocery store taste like nothing.” He adds that many children these days don’t know where their food comes from, how it should taste, or how to prepare it. George’s wife would always grow kohlrabi, an “interesting vegetable, ugly as sin.” George grew up watching Julia Child cut it up into cubes and saute it in butter until tender before stuffing it into pastry dough. As an adult, when his wife grew “ugly” kohlrabi, George knew how to make a not-so-glamorous veggie a work of art. George’s experience with kohlrabi  is no different than the one the kids tell when they come home from school after garden class: “There was this vegetable I thought I didn’t like (insert: spinach, kale, tomatoes, etc) and then we harvested it, cooked it, and ate it in garden class. It was delicious!.” George’s story and our countless interactions converting kids to vegetable lovers proves that children need a safe space to experience, try, and create in order for them to make local whole foods a part of their diet. 

One of George’s favorite chefs is Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Waters was the founder of the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley in 1995. The Schoolyard was the first time he’d heard of edible education. He believes there is enormous value in teaching kids about local and fresh food, and giving them the tools to grow and prepare it. George says “I think it is important to inform kids about how things happen in this country, that steak comes from cows on big farms and the burgers were probably shipped thousands of miles. Kids need to know that you can grow things, and eat them all on your own.” George continues, “these [edible education] programs teach more than how to grow food and about nutrition. They show how much joy comes from being self sufficient.” 

Parents Agree: MSTFP Makes A Difference

ami mcalpin 1.JPG

Ami McAlpin, the Montezuma Inspire Coalition Coordinator and mother of four, has witnessed the founding and resounding impact of the Montezuma School to Farm Project’s school gardens in Cortez. McAlpin’s boys, Jackson (17) and Ben (15) were part of the first group of students to help work on the Cortez Middle School (CMS) garden. McAlpin’s daughter Ellen (14) and a friend helped paint the signs for the CMS garden in sixth grade. Bess (16) is not a fan of getting dirty but enjoyed learning the food science of why certain crops thrive in certain environments. As all four children move out of garden programming, “they have an enormous amount of pride in their work and enjoy watching other kids in the garden experience what they’ve built.”

After the new Heritage Orchard from Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project at CMS was vandalized in 2015, there was overwhelming support from the Cortez community to restore the space. This incident caught McAlpin’s attention: “it brought a lot of awareness from people in the community who might not have ever noticed that these partnerships existed and that this work was being done by MSTFP.” Little did McAlpin know the influence MSTFP would have on her own family.

Aside from meeting Colorado Academic Standards, MSTFP’s curriculum gives kids the opportunity to touch, feel, and understand the natural world around them. McAlpin recounts when Ben was in the sixth grade he came home with little potatoes in his pocket and said, “we can grow these! Let’s plant them!”  and in middle school, after eating strawberries from the garden, said “they were the best strawberries that he had ever had. They tasted like they had sprinkled sugar on top of them.” He couldn't believe that a strawberry straight from the bush could taste so sweet.

McAlpin watched her kids partake in food tastings during elementary school and then saw the creation of a garden-supplemented salad bar in the middle school. She witnessed her children and their peers become more “comfortable and adventurous” and make more nutritious food choices in their daily lives. McAlpin adds: “Through the kids’ experience with School to Farm they'll appreciate food for the rest of their lives. They won't take for granted where their meals came from and what it took to get food to their plate.”

All of McAlpin’s children have grown to love and respect the local foods system through their public education. The boys are enrolled in catering class at Montezuma-Cortez High School. Jackson is considering a future in the restaurant and food industry and Ben would like to build is own house with a garden one day. All the kids help with their garden at home and take special interest in growing basil for pesto and a variety of tomatoes and peppers.

 Not only did garden programming teach McAlpin’s kids to build and tend to gardens, but “they learned how to add herbs to different things cooking in the kitchen. They desire fresh ingredients and things that we grow in our backyard in their meals.”

Not only does MSFTP support education around plant, food, and nutritional science, but the curriculum acknowledges and celebrates the agricultural community and the indigenous Puebloan roots of Montezuma County’s local food system. Whether the kids are learning about drought resistant crops, the three sisters planting method, or how to prepare and account for Colorado’s weather, McAlpin believes MSTFP is showing kids “how food connects us.” She sees how her kids look back at the middle school garden with a sense of ownership and knows the legacy that is built each day in garden class.

Favorite Locally Grown Food: Shishito Peppers

How to cook them: Blister them in a pan with a tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of pink Himalayan salt.

Back to School Interview with Cathy Epps


Cathy Epps is the principal of Mancos Elementary and has been integral to the success of garden programming in the school. When she was first approached about the idea of having garden class for each grade, she was enthusiastic about the students having a “hands-on approach to learning about gardens.” 

Initially, the garden program was “optional” for teachers to participate in. However, Epps was clear that it was essential that each teacher take part. MSTFP feels welcomed and supported as Epps makes sure each year that every class in Mancos Elementary has a designated time for garden class, no matter how busy schedules may be.  

Garden class has “evolved from everybody not only being required to attend, but loving and wanting to attend.” Epps is especially glad that even through the massive construction of the Mancos schools and the demolition of the outside garden space, garden coordinators continue to come inside and teach classes every month. Because coordinators make sure to teach to state mandated standards, teachers have grown to love the program as a productive and unique teaching resource. 

Epps recognizes the tastings done in garden class as an event that both teachers and students looks forward to monthly: “Students want to take home what they learn and they want to plant and eat fresh vegetables...They share how excited they are and it encourages parents to plant gardens at home.”

Even without a physical garden space in Mancos, Epps believes that garden programming is still influencing student culture regarding food: “the program has a huge impact on how students learn to eat right. It’s not just about being full, it’s about planting and growing the food to have healthy choices.” Since the incorporation of a salad bar in the elementary, middle, and high school cafeteria, kids are eating more and more vegetables they learn about in garden class. 

Epp looks forward to the future of MSTFP’s presence in the school, saying she’s “very excited about the school’s expansion and being able to build a whole new garden area.” She predicts future collaborations with Future Farmers of America (FFA) will offer growth and opportunities for students. “I think MSTFP has made an enormous impact on students; one that has them thinking about their future both school and career wise. They see food production as a possible path,” says Epps.

Thinking about the past and future of MSTFP and it’s long history with Mancos schools, Epps expresses her appreciation for the Project, saying “It’s a wonderful program, and wonderful that we’re collaborating and partners in it, and I hope it never goes away.”

Jack Burk on the Value of AmeriCorps and Food Education in Montezuma County


Jack Burk, previous president and board member of the Colorado State Conservation Board and the Mancos Conservation District, and current Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP) Advisory Committee Member, continues to serve as a mentor to the Project. Jack worked with AmeriCorps Nadia Hebard to develop the first iteration of MSTFP in 2010. “I think we have a society where agriculture doesn’t care about health, and I think we have a society where healthcare doesn’t care about food,” says Jack. He believes “it is up to individuals to bridge the gap between what to eat and how to stay healthy. The only way to effectively do that is to grow your own food, or at least appreciate homegrown food.” Jack’s beliefs surrounding the importance of education and the need for food education in schools helped mold MSTFP into what it is today.

The program initially was a series of field trips. The first trip followed a drop of water from the snowy foothills of Mancos down to the Burk’s beef farm. MSTFP took a group of Mancos students in a bus and followed the water’s path. When they arrived at the ranch, Jack dug soil pits and talked about the local water cycle and soil health, and then hosted a cook out with his very own Burk Beef. For many students, it was their first exposure to how the environment and earth systems connect to their local food system.

The program continued for some time as a series of field trips, but organizing the trips and taking kids out of school for a half day became logistically difficult. When Sarah Syverson came along as the executive director, the program began to transform into what it looks like today, with school gardens and individual garden coordinators at each site.

In his memory of the program, Jack doesn’t have an event or moment over the last decade that shines brighter than the rest. However, he does recognize the AmeriCorps’ involvement as an integral part of the Project and a fundamental element to the success and growth of the program. Jack sees the “impact and the infectious energy of the program every time an AmeriCorps teaches.”

It’s not often remote rural communities get a continuous flow of college educated members who are passionate about the work they’re doing and can add outside perspective and dynamism to the work space. Jack believes that “by having a fresh group of AmeriCorps come through, it’s invigorating for everybody in the program.” He sees the exchange between the community and the MSFTP AmeriCorps as an opportunity for both parties to grow. Montezuma County does its best to teach the AmeriCorps and give them a positive experience in a new space, and the whole community benefits from the outside experience and personality that each new member brings.

As an Emeritus Professor at California State University, Fullerton, Jack Burk’s passion for education and his agricultural knowledge make him a strong advocate for garden programming. “I‘m convinced education is the root of all good,” says Jack. He believes that MSTFP and other School to Farm Projects will empower kids to take care of themselves and their land: “If you can teach kids to take care of themselves and do a good job of it, you’re changing the world forever.” Jack grinned and added, “look at little kids with carrots between their teeth and worms in their hands as they dig through soil. I can’t imagine anything that inundates a community like kids learning to do things that make them smile.”

The Beginning of MSTFP with Nadia Hebard

When we talk about the plant cycle in the classroom, we describe the seed as both the beginning and the end. Nadia Hebard and her legacy as the founder of Montezuma School to Farm Project is an example of the cyclical nature of time, and what grows from endings and nurtured beginnings.

In 2009, Nadia was serving as the Office of Surface Mining (OSM)/Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Watershed Coordinator for the Mancos River Watershed Project. Nadia’s supervisor, Felicity Broennan, maintained strong relationships with both conservative ranchers and liberal community members, and inspired Nadia to unify the community for healthier land. Nadia remembers,

“It was so rewarding to be part of the effort to find common ground on such an important topic (water conservation) and it really opened my eyes to the value of human connection and the depth of skill, wisdom, and experience that so many people in Mancos have.”

As her service term ended, Nadia researched programs around Colorado that were connecting students to farming. With the help of Jack Burk, her current supervisors, the Mancos Conservation District, and strong roots in the community, Nadia transformed her position and the expiration of her service term into a new endeavor: Montezuma School to Farm Project.

Nadia believes that Mancos is “special and full of opportunity because of its rich history of ranching and farming, which has led to a remarkable amount of people who are involved in agriculture.” She sees the Mancos Valley as an ideal place to host garden programming because students are “part of a strong community with immense amounts of wisdom...and they are fully capable of being part of the local food movement.”

During the very first MSTFP field trip which included tracing the watershed to the Burks’ ranch, Nadia showed students how the watershed’s health “is vital to maintain a thriving environment and our very existence.” Water conservation and sustainable practices to this day continue to be at the core of MSTFP’s garden curriculum. Nadia adds,

“It is important that we raise our kids to be stewards of the earth; and what better way than to empower them with the curiosity, knowledge, and skills to grow their own food.”

The growth and expansion of the Project since Nadia left speaks to the seed she planted and the strong roots her work and dedication cultivated for the program to thrive. Nadia is grateful for how her years working in Mancos shaped her. During her time in Montezuma County, she had the opportunity to get to know and respect the community, learn about the watershed, start MSTFP, and work at the Wily Carrot Farm.

Now living in Montana with her two kids and partner, Nadia reflects on the past decade since starting MSTFP: “Mancos left a legacy in me: a love of community and a desire to grow as much of my own food as I can.” She hopes that MSTFP leaves a similar legacy with its students.


MSTFP and the Orchard: Sarah Syverson on the Life and Future of the Program

The night of Sunday, May 24, 2015, the newly-planted Heritage Orchard at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School was vandalized, ripped from the ground. To most, fallen fruit saplings in a town where public spaces are constantly defaced would barely raise a brow. But these orchards were different. They represented a new era for the Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP) and the future and growth of edible education in Montezuma County. Shortly after the incident, the community rallied to raise seven hundred dollars in donations to replace damaged trees and a local nurse who worked night shifts offered to drive by in the early hours of the morning and check on the trees when they were re-planted. Now, nearly four years later, the conversation surrounding the orchards has shifted. What will we do with the enormous supply of heritage apples?


Sarah Syverson, former executive director of MSTFP, recounts this story of destruction, rebirth, and abundance as a metaphor for the resilience and longevity of the program. “The orchards are something for all of us--the kids, the staff, and the community members,” says Sarah, “and none of it would have been possible without local support.”

The “magnificence of how a community can come together” to support a cause, is a simple but fundamental concept, that Sarah has watched, cultivated, and participated in since coming to the organization in the Spring of 2011. She remembers the Fall of 2010, when she co-hosted a field trip at her three-acre subsistence farm in Mancos, Colorado. Less than a year later she found herself serving as the new Executive Director of MSTFP.

Sarah grew up in Montana with “agriculture in her blood,” and has experience in various sustainable food communities in diverse climates. She was a farm apprentice in Marin County, California at a Zen Center, and she worked on a subsistence farm North of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The position as Executive Director found Sarah at an intersection of her passions and skills: simple and sustainable living and working in the nonprofit sector.

The ‘School to Farm’ part of Montezuma School to Farm Project speaks to the history and origin of the program. While living in Northern California, Sarah visited the Edible Schoolyard in Berkley, California and wished she had had similar food education as a kid. Inspired by the garden programming in Berkley, Sarah became the cornerstone for helping MSTFP transition from offering field trips to garden classes. Sarah’s influence marked the pivotal shift from the program’s ‘school to farm’ to ‘farm to school’ approach, an evolution concurrent with the many growing Farm to School programs across the country.

In the initial stages of offering garden classes, the organization (with a part-time staff of three people) brought programming to elementary students in Dolores and Mancos, and to the middle schoolers in Cortez, as an effort to make sure all students in the county at some point would have the opportunity to experience MSTFP.  Sarah stressed the importance of “kids getting access to and learning how to grow, and taste, and consume, and fall in love with the vegetables and fruits that are in the garden space....and connecting kids to the source of their food, the joy of growing, and the amazement of something simple like pulling out potatoes.”

As the program grew both in terms of garden production and student reach, MSTFP took on full-time staff members as well as AmeriCorps service members, to help solidify the organization’s roots across the county. The dedication and commitment from staff have always been the backbone of the success of the program. Sarah adds, “we’ve had really incredible human beings that care about creating something different in the world and want to work hard to do it and hopefully learn a lot of skills themselves.”

Under Sarah’s direction, MSTFP became the topic of  after-school dinner table conversations, where hundreds of students could go home at the end of the day with a “miraculous but simple package: dirt under their fingernails and two potatoes in their backpack,” and the experiential education to grow, share, and cook their own food.   

The simplicity and power of garden programming mirror Sarah’s values of simple and present living.  She believes, “if kids can eat a fresh carrot and know how to grow it, even if they don't touch it again till they're 27 or 35 or 40, they at least have some bodily experience of connecting with their food.”

Since stepping down in 2016, Sarah has remained a committed and valuable source of support for the program. She has served as an interim ED in times of transition, heads the advisory committee, and offers her strengths of listening and connecting the dots across the community whenever anyone is in need of resources or advice.

Looking forward, Sarah sees a bright future for MSTFP. She feels very confident in the current staff and the direction and support of current Executive Director Gretchen Rank whose “involvement in policy making is really powerful.” In recent years, MSTFP has faced a lot of transition and turn-over. Whether it’s an internal obstacle with staff or an external threat like vandalized trees, Sarah believes MSTFP is charged with endurance. She insists that at many challenging intersections, the program “could have died,” but because of the “robust response from the community, it has indicated its own life.”

Tears gather in Sarah’s eyes as she talks about the program and what it means to Montezuma County. “You’re a part of [MSTFP] for a period and you're giving blood to it, but the [program] is its own being and it wants to live and thrive. The right people continue to show up for it and give what they can. It may not always look exactly like you thought it would, but it continues to grow and evolve.” She smiles at the thought of what is to come, “I don't know what the future looks like, but I know that there are awesome strong elements happening in the creation of the future of MSTFP that we can all believe in.”

Erin Bohm on the Effects of Experiential Education


In the U.S., most garden education programs are focused in urban settings where students don’t interact with natural processes on a daily basis. It's very easy for students in rural environments to get overlooked with the assumption that they already know how to participate in their land and food system. Erin Bohm, an experiential education curriculum developer, knows the importance of outdoor experiential education, especially in a place like Montezuma County where food production is a way of life.

Erin Bohm was hired in 2011 as one of Montezuma School to Farm Project’s (MSTFP) first educators for garden class. She continued on to become the education manager and an experiential education curriculum developer. Bohm is responsible for creating the outline for MSTFP’s garden curriculum, the Drought Resilience Education Manual, and the Nutritional Education Manual. She brought structure and consistency to the systems of how to teach successfully in an outdoor classroom.

Bohm believes that whether kids love, want to leave, or know nothing about the agricultural community they live in, it is important to “have programming that elicits their knowledge and shows them how it can follow them outside of the agricultural industry or enrich them as they stay in an agricultural environment.”

Bohm’s experience was founded in the backcountry where she lead trips and courses for about 15 years. Experiential education in the backcountry is vital to survival. A mistake or oversight, like losing a sock or damaging a tent, can quickly escalate to a life-threatening situation. The idea that children learn technical and social-emotional skills in the backcountry more quickly is supported by the fact that failure or laziness have real-time consequences. Giving children a sense of purpose and autonomy combined with the pressures of natural effects is what makes the outdoor learning environment so impactful.

The garden offers a parallel experience to a backcountry classroom. In the past, the success of food production was the difference between thriving or starving, and for many in the agricultural industry, food production is still economically linked with vitality. The human connection with food and our ability to grow, raise, and harvest was a value “held deeply in our human skill set, until recently,” says Bohm. Showing kids in a safe setting how the success and failures of food production can impact an individual, as well as a community is what initially drew Bohm to work with MSTFP.

According to Bohm, “the effective principle of experiential education is reflection... If you don't reflect, then you find that you make the same mistakes over and over again.” Simply having an outdoor or hands-on experience does not lead to excellence or wisdom, it is the reflection of those experiences that catalyzes growth and knowledge.  

When people come to recognize that their decisions and actions have immediate and important consequences, they realize their ability to make an impact. Bohm believes garden education nurture’s children’s observation skills, allowing them to see and participate in the patterns, underlying systems, processes, and cycles in the natural world. Learning and creating change is only possible “if we are deeply observing and learning each time we try something and remembering it the next time,” says Bohm. Showing a student how to stare at a plant or a habitat and just observe “is the first step in them becoming a scientist who really notices things” and it’s the first step in becoming a person who cares enough to make a change.

Check out this Food Tank article about how Erin Bohm designed her Drought Resilient Curriculum to better serve garden education in the Southwest.

The Top Four Reasons Teachers Love MSTFP

May marks the end of yet another school year in Montezuma County, Colorado. As we graduate fifth and sixth grade classes from the Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP), and send students home with their garden journals and recipe books, we like to reflect back on what it means to have garden class as a part of public education. In honor of another school year in the books, this month we are featuring various teachers to hear their perspectives on how garden programming has affected students over the last ten years. Here are the top four reasons educators love MSTFP.


In a time where fun comes in the form of plastic and via screens, the big world outside is a new and exciting place that many children are not exposed to or encouraged to explore. Tyra Hughes (preschool, Mancos), explains that “when children are engaged in the outdoors, particularly the garden experience, it opens endless possibilities for discovery.” Experiential education in an outdoor setting pushes children outside their comfort zone, and allows different kinds of learners (kinesthetic, visual, auditory, and reading and writing) to engage in ways that aren’t always encouraged or available in a typical classroom setting. Fred Schroeder (3rd grade, Mancos) elaborates: “Garden class helps students see, feel, smell, hear, and taste what is real. The importance of the self-to-world connection carries benefits throughout education and life.”


According to teachers, one of the most valuable benefits to garden class are the life skills the students gain. Linda Wade (kindergarten, Dolores) notes that garden class and outdoor learning are experiences that children may never have at home with their families, and therefore never learn skills like growing and cooking nutritious food; vital skills “used to survive.” Sandy Jones (5th grade, Dolores) adds that garden class is the first time many students handpick and cook their own food, and “taste the fruits of their labor.” As a result, Hughes concludes, “there is an excitement and ownership of the seeds [the kids] plant,” and the skills they hone.  



While it is a treat for kids to learn, explore, and play during garden class, teachers see the positive impact garden education has on state mandated and standardized testing inside normal classes. Danene Yokeum (2nd grade, Dolores) says that garden class “gives [students] real life experience, health, nutrition, and science based learning with application to their lives.” She continues, “it is important for students to have garden/agricultural based lessons for real world applications, and also for science based learning.” MSTFP has a strong standard-based curriculum focusing on the scientific, sociological, historical and mathematical aspects and implications of food production. For many students, having hands-on lessons can provide the “ah-hah” moment to help make connections to concepts taught in the classroom. Monica Ramirez (2nd grade, Dolores) notes how her students “get so excited about [garden class] and love to connect what they learn in garden to classroom learning.”

Hughes talks about her favorite garden lesson where the preschoolers were asked to sort different fall vegetables: “I loved sorting by color, by size, all the different ways to sort the produce. That is a huge cognitive skill to develop, and what [MSTFP] did was so perfect.” Kate Kearns, another preschool teacher at Mancos, shares that garden lessons “have all been FUN with a lot of opportunities for the children to learn using all of their senses...and the activities have aligned very well with the state standards we are trying to meet.”


Working in outdoor settings not only encourages kids to get dirty but it allows kids to work as a part of something bigger than themselves. Hughes recognizes her “children being more cautious with living things… because [garden] provides us as educators an opportunity to remind children that we are stewards of this earth.” Yokeum notes that along with science, agriculture, and health skills, the kids develop “interpersonal skills: sharing, problem-solving, and team building.” Garden class proves that many people doing their small part together can support both a community and the earth.

The Kemper Students Who Planted the White House Garden: Where Are They Now?

In the Spring of 2016, five students participating in the Montezuma School to Farm Project from Kemper Elementary School in Cortez, Colorado joined first lady Michelle Obama to help plant the White House garden. Miles Frost, Gael Garcia, Christian Rebaza, Cecelia Thom, and Trenity Tillahash had a chance to explore the capital city, plant various vegetables on the South Lawn of the White House, and eat delicious meals served from the White House kitchen. These students had not one, but two opportunities to visit Washington D.C. and share the art of gardening and cooking with the some of the nation's most respected leaders. 

After the trip in April, MSTFP returned to D.C. with the students  in June of 2016 to harvest the fruits of their labor. This time, celebrity chefs Rachael Ray and Frankie Celenza were there to help harvest and cook fresh food. Kemper students had the joy of sitting with Michelle Obama for their meal, where the kids talked about the plants they were growing in the school gardens and even shared how to say different words in Navajo. 

dc (1).jpg

Christian Rebaza remembers “I was really excited for the second trip. I was excited to eat more food and see Michelle again. I liked Rachel Ray, too.  She was really cool, and we made a nice salad. She inspired me to cook more.”

MSTFP caught up with four of the five students, now at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School to see how the trip may have impacted their lives. All four students recounted their favorite parts of their journey and the lasting impression of the trip.

Rebaza shares how when he goes to Walmart now and sees all the seeds, he’s reminded how “he wants to stay more involved in gardening or agriculture.” He talks about cooking with his Mom, saying “I like being in touch with my food. We make a lot of our food from scratch, so I get to chop vegetables.”  Through practice at home and at his internship, Rebaza believes “it would be cool to make food for other people as a living. I would love to be a chef in New York.”

Each of these students’ paths are different, and their memories of MSTFP and the D.C. trip are unique. Check out the video to see and hear from three other Kemper students as we explore “where are they now?”

Reciprocity of Gratitude: The MSTFP AmeriCorps Experience

As long as Montezuma School to Farm Project has been alive, AmeriCorps members have been involved. Since the beginning, AmeriCorps have taken the strategic planning, management, and support of full time staff members and evolved ideas into boots-on-the-ground action. We caught up with service members from the last decade to gather reflections on the symbiosis of The Project and the AmeriCorps members.  


AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that works to improve lives and encourage civic engagement. Members commit their time to address critical community needs. In the case of MSTFP, AmeriCorps works to provide garden education; maintaining and teaching in outdoor garden classrooms, as well as working on grants, community events, and community collaborations to further the Project’s mission of connecting Montezuma County’s youth to their agricultural heritage. 

Members serve one-year terms with the option to apply to stay for subsequent years. They are paid a monthly living stipend and are encouraged to live “simply,” enjoying the joys and freedoms of embracing a low-cost, local life.  

In 2009, Nadia Hebard was serving as the Office of Surface Mining (OSM)/Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Watershed Coordinator for the Mancos River Watershed Project AmeriCorps. It was during this term that Nadia founded MSTFP, and paved the path for years to come. 

Every year a new group of AmeriCorps arrive from around the United States to serve. Amber Cardwell, a Direct Service Member (DSM) from 2018-2019 shares how her year has provided that opportunity “to talk, interact and become friends with people from all over the country with entirely different backgrounds.” She continues, “somehow in all our differences, we are all the same. We have worked together to become a strong cohesive unit that is dedicated and focused on providing the best possible program to Montezuma County.” 

With each new year, members bring unique histories, expertise, culture, and personalities. Mia Becker (DSM, 2018-2019) notes the legacy of the energy and impact of AmeriCorps. As she finishes her term, she shares her realization “of how important it is what we do, what the AmeriCorps before us did, and what the AmeriCorps after us will do.” 


As garden coordinators, MSTFP AmeriCorps are more than just teachers. Their identities become synonymous with garden class, food education, and giving kids the opportunity to learn outside. Ellen Underwood (DSM, 2017-2018) recounts how “students would see us and always shout “Garden!” with big, beautiful, cheesy smiles on their face (often jumping and laughing too)...We weren’t Miss Ellen, or Teacher, we were “Garden.” 

What does it mean to be Garden?  It means you are a role model, a teacher, and a keeper and cultivator of sustainable growing practices. According to a study by the  Collaborative Management Program’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, almost 25% of children in Montezuma County are below the poverty line, 1,300 students live in a Food Desert, and more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. Needless to say, the demographics MSTFP works with are diverse economically and socially, as well as racially and culturally.  As a garden coordinator, direct service members are exposed to an environment where kids gather from all different backgrounds, each of whom needs something different from their time in the garden.  

Stacy Armbruster (DSM 2013-2015) explains: “The garden is a place to connect kids to their food, and it can also be a place of healing...the gardens can promote the importance of self-awareness and self-care.” How do we teach youth to care about the food system in a place and time when we are so disconnected from natural processes? We help students see the joy in growing.

Garden education encourages students to embrace process and outcome, experience and meaning, and helps them recognize who they are and who they want to be. Armbruster believes that students leave garden programming “a little bit stronger and healthier, both mentally and physically, making better food choices, and feeling more confident in who they are as a human being regardless of their circumstances and their past history and regardless of whether they want to become a farmer or not.” 


MSTFP seeks to show students how food production is more than nutrition and science, but a means of cultivating community. “Agriculture doesn't come easy in Southwest Colorado. It only exists there because of our own persistence,” says Patrick Alford (DSM, 2015-2016.)  “Just as we need food, we also need to understand it and the place from which it comes...Food not only sustains and restores the body, but it can also be an incredibly strong source of community as well.”

ac (1).jpg

AmeriCorps at MSTFP tackle systemic food system issues both inside and outside the classroom. When the school day is done, members work over vacations, weekends, and summer break, running community events, working on marketing and content creation, organizing curriculum, and planning and maintaining garden crops for the future. The reach and impact of MSTFP goes far beyond the school, and helps connect the dots for parents, children, and the community, to catalyze holistic participation in the local food system. 

Drew Watson (DSM, 2017-2018) explains, “MSTFP provides an educational opportunity to the Montezuma County community that very few places in the country have. To be able to work, play, and learn in a garden or demonstration farm, and eat local vegetables, is something I think the community treasures and appreciates.”

Whether it’s parents coming to dine at the Dolores Elementary School Third Grade Restaurant or guests attending the annual Hoedown, it’s obvious that AmeriCorps’ projects have “encouraged teamwork, individual and collective responsibility, and a commitment to success, which strengthens the bonds between school gardeners, teachers and the communities of Montezuma County,” says Armbruster. The fresh perspective and eagerness to learn that comes with new members each year facilitates MSTFP creating “new and continued connections that are based on trust, respect, equality, and reciprocity.”


Unlike other organizations, MSTFP isn’t alleviating or solving an immediate problem, but educating and sharing knowledge to promote self sufficiency and sustainability for years to come. As AmeriCorps, it is members’ responsibility to impart a passion and excitement to the students and community around food culture.

In a time of climate change and natural resource depletion, “water conservation, growing your own food, and understanding our food system becomes more important than ever,” says Becker.  “We need to make sure that the younger generations continue to be educated on these matters so that they can make responsible decisions.” MSTFP’s education extends beyond the term of each year’s AmeriCorps. Members’ service “influences the next generation’s participation in sustainability, conservation and their agricultural heritage,” adds Cardwell. 


Come August, this year’s AmeriCorps will leave MSTFP and continue on with their own careers, education, and pursuits. Though the groups are always different and have a unique story to tell, there appears to be a consistent sentiment shared at the end of each crew’s term: gratitude. 

Each AmeriCorps mentions in their own way how the trials, efforts, and growth in their year prepared them for whatever came/is coming next. For some, their service term exemplified the ethics and necessity of serving your community. For others, the year provided the experience to pursue a career, the knowledge and motivation to take on graduate education, or simply the community and relationships to grow as a person and citizen. 

As members prepare for their next steps, they reflect and absorb the “gratitude from the community members, teachers, students, and MSTFP staff for each task, lesson, or service that members performed,” says Maryssa Schlough (DSM, 2016-2018). The AmeriCorps in turn feel gratitude “for the community, teachers, students, and MSTFP staff for having patience and acceptance, and more importantly teaching an array of valuable lessons; everything from how to pull the suckers from tomato plants to understanding the power of unity when people sit down together and celebrate a meal.” It is the reciprocal graciousness of those who live in the county and those who come to serve that breeds the future growth and vitality of MSTFP. 

If you are interested in housing, supporting, or being an MSTFP AmeriCorps, contact Gretchen Rank for more information: