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.”