The Montezuma School to Farm Project faces a leadership change and possible staff and program cuts in 2017 because of declining funding, according to a Dec. 20 release from interim director Sarah Syverson.
Zoë Nelsen, who had served as School to Farm director since March, resigned on Dec. 12, Gretchen Rank, Mancos Conservation District director, said on Friday. Montezuma School to Farm is a division of the Mancos Conservation District.
Nelsen said on Friday that she is pursuing a doctorate degree and needed to focus on her studies.
“I’m choosing to do the doctorate program and focus my time and energy on that,” she said.
Her schooling will take her to Costa Rica, where she will be volunteering at a school garden, she said. School garden programs will continue to be part of her research and interests, and her time with School to Farm was important, Nelsen said.
“I think that’s so valuable,” she said. “I wish the program so much success.”
Syverson had led the organization for five years before Nelsen became director, and now Syverson is filling in. The Mancos Conservation District board will advertise the position for a permanent director, Rank said.
Throughout 2016, School to Farm was unable to develop strong funding streams and might face staff cuts, according to Syverson.
Rank said nothing would change.
“To my knowledge, we are going to maintain current staff and garden coordinators,” she said.
Rank didn’t rule out cuts to programming, though, saying the conservation district board would discuss that with Syverson at a public meeting.
Nelsen said during her leadership the organization brought in funding but also experienced cuts. Area school districts had contributed $26,000 for the group’s budget, and Nelsen had been working on a $26,000 matching donation fund from other donors. About $15,000 of that had been raised when she left, she said.
Nelsen said School to Farm took a financial hit from a statewide cut in severance tax through the Colorado conservation board. She had applied for several U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, but they were not awarded.
The program is expected to bring in about $202,000 in grant revenue for 2017, but it anticipates $251,000 in expenditures, according to Mancos Conservation District budget information on the state Department of Local Affairs website. School to Farm brought in about $248,000 in grant revenue in 2016, and spent about $261,000, according to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.
Syverson said Friday she expects that budget to be cut in January.
Since its start in 2009, School to Farm has grown from 40 students to more than 2,000 students, according to the release. The program provides hands-on and classroom agriculture education for K-12 students in Cortez, Mancos and Dolores.
In 2016, School to Farm developed a school garden program at Mesa Elementary School in Cortez, and built a high tunnel on the Mancos Schools campus and a honey beehive at the Dolores School Garden.
In April, five fourth-graders from Kemper Elementary School were invited to the White House to plant and cook with First Lady Michelle Obama. They returned in June to help harvest the crops they had planted.
The group is seeking individual donations and will continue its pursuit of business sponsorships, grants, private donations, school district and AmeriCorps support in 2017, according to Syverson’s news release.
Syverson said she was impressed with the support from the community and the commitment of the School to Farm staff.
“There’s a certain sense ... that we’ll make it through this,” she said.
Rank encouraged people to give their time, talent and financial resources to benefit School to Farm.
“It’s a wonderful program, and I hope to see it sustained in the future,” Rank said.
Nelsen was confident that the Mancos Conservation District board would continue developing the program and looking for sustainable funding sources.
“I feel like there’s such strong community support for the program,” she said.
For more information, visit www.montezumaschooltofarm.org.