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

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

MSTFP caught up with the Kemper students who went to Washington D.C. to help Michelle Obama in 2016. Those students are now in Middle School and all have unique memories of garden education and different pursuits for the future. Read their story and watch the video!

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.”

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.

Nadia Hebard

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

Jack Burk Photo.jpg

By: Sammy Blair

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.”