Cultivating a generation | SteamboatToday.com

Cultivating a generation

Annie Martin

A radish shines under the sun in a school garden in the Salida School District. The district partners with a non-profit to run gardens that bring fresh, local food into school cafeterias. Community members in South Routt last week learned from the state's Farm to School Task Force about the possibilities of starting a farm-to-school program in the district. The first step taken was the creation of a school gardening space at South Routt Elementary last summer.

The Yampa Valley Autism Program is cultivating more than just vegetables.

Its Community Cultivation program, established for individuals with disabilities and at-risk youth, cultivates life and social skills that help its members grow right alongside the produce.

With 25 members, many of whom are diagnosed with autism, the nonprofit relies on a mix of teachers, paraprofessionals and student staff members utilizing horticulture to create a work environment that gives members the experience of an employee.

"It provides responsibility and challenges in an environment that is relaxing and therapeutic," says Yampa Valley Autism Program Executive Director Lisa Lorenz.

Built and maintained by a mix of students from local high schools and middle schools, and those looking to build skills before joining the work force, the biggest project, a $20,000 greenhouse, was made possible in 2013 through donations from different foundations. It has evolved into a 22-foot-long, off-the-grid, solar-powered garden dream house, complete with an underground water system growing organic herbs, fruits and vegetables year-round.

The greenhouse now produces "just about everything you could think of, including a fig tree," says Lorenz.

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The produce is sold at the Main Street Farmers Market, through the Agriculture Alliance Co-op, and to local businesses such as Rex's. Its produce is also donated to LiftUp for families in need. Though the program is nonprofit, students receive a small "paycheck" from a portion of the revenue.

The greenhouse also assists in another project — students are able to start seedlings earlier to plant in the Yampa Valley Botanic Gardens, where six raised flowerbeds were donated to the program.

The whole process, from growing to selling, creates an invaluable experience for the students, who learn gardening, appropriate behavior, how to work together and business skills.

Community Cultivation also has a business outreach program designed to help students get real-world jobs and work opportunities. Many students, says Lorenz, go on to get jobs in gardening or business. The program also has small greenhouses and extensions around Routt County, including Steamboat Springs High School and South Routt. Lorenz hopes to create even more greenhouses around Routt County, ideally one in every school in the county. She hopes the program will eventually also include class projects, field trips and even botany lessons.

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which donated the land, is building an on-site workspace for the program, complete with bathrooms, kitchens and classrooms.

"It's a great program," says Lorenz. "I hope to see it continue for a long time to come."