Growing Colorado Gardeners
By Carolyn Dunmire:
When the Montezuma School to Farm Project (MSTFP) is mentioned to a group, the first question is usually, “Hey, isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it be farm to school?” It may seem backwards, but gardening and agricultural education programs in Montezuma County are successfully moving forward and teaching children of all ages how to grow and eat local food.
Cortez Middle School students plant seeds at the MSTFP garden on the school's grounds.
Rather than a farm to school fresh food program, the MSTFP is where schools grow food on-site and students learn about gardening and cooking while interacting with the local farm community. The project vision says it all: “Imagine a world where we all know the source of our food and value the farmers and ranchers that grow it for us. Where we are all familiar with innovative water and soil conservation methods that grow our crops and protect our natural resources. Drip systems, mulching, composting, drought tolerant plant and tree varieties, watershed knowledge and best agricultural practices become like knowing your last name - obvious and easily conveyed. And where every child, family, and community member has access to fresh, affordable, local food.”
Elementary school students learn to cook what they grow at school in MSTFP summer cooking program.
It’s hard to miss the MSTFP when visiting the southwest corner of Colorado. The south “gateway” to Cortez on U.S. Highway 160 passes by a two-acre production garden and orchard at the Cortez Middle School. Ben Goodrich, Production Coordinator, explains how the program works. “MSTFP engages students throughout the school year with our garden class curriculum. We focus on lessons that are aligned with state standards that teach a variety of topics: plant sciences, soil health, drought resilience, and basic nutrition/cooking.” Goodrich noted that, “although the COVID pandemic changed things this year, traditionally, there is a tasting component each week to have students try new fruits and vegetables as well as test out easy recipes they can make at home.”
As all Colorado gardeners know (especially those in MSTFP gardens at 6500’), summer is the most important time in the garden. Goodrich explains how the summer programs work: “In collaboration with Southwest Conservation Corps, we hire local students ages 14-16 to work at our Grow and Give gardens at the Cortez Middle School, Dolores, and Mancos schools. Starting in June, we give students a crash course in growing vegetables, fruits, and flowers giving hands-on opportunities to learn skills in intensive market gardening including soil health, planting, irrigation, weed and pest management, harvesting, and basic food safety.” For high school students who want to “dive deeper” into crop production or sell produce, MSTFP hires a few interns to sell the produce at the Cortez Farmers Market and distribute it to community food banks. There is even a weekly free produce stand for students at Southwest Open School in Cortez from mid-August through the end of October where students distribute food to each other.
Students from Kemper Elementary in Cortez visited Washington DC to help Michelle Obama plant and harvest the White House vegetable garden.
The MSTFP hit the national press during the Obama administration when Kemper Elementary students traveled to Washington, DC to help First Lady Michelle Obama plant a vegetable garden at the White House. They returned to DC in June 2016 to help with her final harvest and cook the bounty alongside her.
Since it is not possible to “age out” of gardening, there are additional opportunities for older students who want to scale-up from gardening to farming at Fozzie’s Farm. Donated to the Montezuma Land Conservancy in 2016, this 83-acre farm outside Lewis, CO is the center of the Conservancy’s community education programming. Jay Loschert, Outreach and Education Coordinator, clarifies that at Fozzie’s Farm, “We aren’t teaching kids about conservation or agriculture, we are doing conservation and agriculture. Programs at Fozzie’s Farm are a hands-on experience. This is the first time for many of the students to use hand tools and build something from scratch.” Loschert notes that Fozzie’s Farm creates “additional on-ramps” for students to participate in gardening and farming that aren’t available through traditional AG programs such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America. For example, a 4-H participant who can’t raise a backyard hog in the City of Cortez can participate in an animal husbandry project at Fozzie’s Farm.
Cattle at Fozzie's Farm. Photo: Jay Loschert
Fozzie’s has a month-long AG Immersion Program each summer for students from the alternative high school in Montezuma County. Students meet at the farm for 8-hours each day four days per week. They receive school credit and a stipend for their work at the farm. In addition to learning water management and rotational grazing methods, the students visit local and regional agricultural centers including Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch, Ft. Lewis Agricultural Research Station, and McPhee Dam/Dolores Project, the source of the farm’s irrigation water. Loschert says students gain much more than agricultural knowledge during the program; “They learn to trust themselves by working on challenging projects in teams with their peers and other adults. Even more than building agricultural and gardening skills, Fozzie’s Farm supports healthy relationships between people and the land.”
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Carolyn Dunmire and her husband have 60 acres at 7000' in SW Colorado where they grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables year-round in a large outdoor garden, a greenhouse, a hoop house, and an orchard with 200 fruit trees.