GUIDESTONES ARE TYPICALLY DEFINED as a sort of celestial clock recording the passage of events or as a stone marker acting as a guide for travelers. The mission of Guidestone Colorado echoes this sentiment. The name “was chosen to honor past and present leaders who have dedicated themselves to building healthy and resilient communities through the production (of) and education (about) locally grown and raised food.” I spoke in depth with Executive Director Andrea Earley Coen and Director of Operations and Community Engagement Abigail Peters.
Peters is a recent addition to the Guidestone team, a self-professed “rootin’, tootin’ country girl.” On any given day she can be in a Zoom meeting, chasing cows or even weed-eating and arranging centerpieces for an event. With a background in nonprofit management she was invited to move to Colorado by her sister but joined Guidestone because it “gives kids the opportunity to get their hands dirty, to see a different side of life.”
Coen has been with the organization “almost since its inception.” Beginning as a field instructor and naturalist in a number of environmental education centers across the country, she thrived on the idea of youth having hands-on, experiential opportunities. She described working with students who would have powerful experiences for a week but then go back to their urban lives. “It felt so disconnected for me. I wondered, ‘How can we get kids even more directly connected to the land?’” And so, she found Guidestone and became immersed in bringing the opportunity for youth to engage in local agriculture.
Guidestone’s home is at the Hutchinson Homestead and Learning Center, a 150-year-old historic homestead that sits in the heart of the still-operational Hutchison Ranch. In 2006, the Hutchinson family donated the historic site to the Town of Poncha Springs, partnering with Salida-area Parks, Open-space and Trails, which acquired funds to do preservation work on the Homestead. Through those years, up until 2013, the site underwent full preservation work.
Guidestone started developing the Farmhands Education Program in 2010 and became the on-site presence in 2013. When the interpretive materials were complete, SPOT “handed the baton over to Guidestone.” Guidestone now has a 20-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Town of Poncha Springs to manage the operations of the Homestead and develop the site as a center for agriculture education and agritourism.
The programs accommodate a variety of ages, starting with the Little Sprouts and Little Spurs events. Occurring during the summertime, “Farmhands curriculum focuses on the art and skill of growing and raising food through the lens of both cultural history and current farming and ranching practices.” There are programs for older kids and families, including the Family Program at Badger Creek Ranch, Rancher and Farmer Mondays, and Garden and Ranch Camps, most of which happen throughout the summer. Coen described the experiences as “plant, harvest, taste,” an organic way to get youth connected to the land.
Some Friday programs are offered in the fall and spring to support the four-day school week of Salida School District. The Homestead is a popular stop for home-school families, teaching environmental education classes and giving tours that support state standards in a variety of subjects. Horizons Exploratory Academy does two weeks of service learning at the Homestead in both spring and fall: “hands-on, have-fun knowledge-building experiences.” Even high school students doing their capstone project have explored the resources Guidestone provides.
Adults can get involved by attending Guidestone classes via Colorado Mountain College, including a Spring Gardening class and Spanish in the Garden. Guidestone partners with the City of Salida to manage city-owned community gardens in front of the Touber Building, in Crestone Mesa and eventually in Confluence Park. Guidestone Americorps members work with community gardeners and specifically at Sonia’s Garden at the Touber Building. It also works with Family Youth Initiatives and Boys and Girls Clubs participants to support youth engagement in the gardens. “Volunteer crews keep it going. … None of what we do is able to be encapsulated in a nutshell,” laughed Coen.
In addition to Guidestone’s gardening and farming programs in Salida, the Hutchison Homestead and Learning Center, as an “agritourism site for heritage tours and as an educational site,” keeps agricultural history and traditional homesteading skills alive. Not only are there tours, there is a teaching kitchen and classroom that can be rented.
Guidestone’s role at the Hutchinson Homestead has also provided the opportunity to develop a unique partnership with the Hutchinson Ranch and the Hutchinson family, with a shared goal of modeling how a creative partnership between a nonprofit and a for-profit ranch can demonstrate a mutually beneficial relationship. One example of this is a timber-framed, 170-year-old grist mill, which was donated to Guidestone in 2016 and reconstructed in 2019 on the Hutchinson Ranch next to the event barn. The mill is used by both entities to support programs for both parties. For example, Music at the Mill brings people together. Specializing in local artists and local music, Guidestone’s goal is to engage “families and people from all different walks of life,” said Peters. Because it is on the operating side of the ranch, guests get to “see that the history that we talk about is still going on today — it’s not over.”
With only five full-time employees and four AmeriCorps volunteers, Guidestone is grateful for the wide range of volunteers who ensure the success of any given event. Peters added, “There is a reciprocal nature of the support. We know every person who comes through the door. Supporters are not just handing over a check; they are joining a community.”
There are many ways to support Guidestone. Simply visiting the Hutchinson Homestead for a tour or attending an event at the Mill is a start. Consider engaging in any of the educational camps or even make a direct donation by visiting GuidestoneColorado.org. Perhaps the simplest way would be to attend the 16th Annual Pumpkin Patch and Harvest Festival, happening October 7-9 and 14-16. The festival is a pre-ticketed event, and tickets are available through Guidestone’s website. Enjoy wagon rides to the pumpkin patch, a free pumpkin with each child’s ticket, a straw-bale maze, crafts, drinks, snacks, farmyard friends, games, a cider press and live music!
Starr Hill was raised off the grid in tipis and old mining cabins between Fairplay, Como, Hartsel and Leadville. Now a teacher, she is raising a family of her own and working on a memoir of lessons she learned growing up off the grid. This article is sponsored by PJ and Merrell Bergin.