With the departure of Sarah and Bill Bishop after 14 years of service and dedication to the Mountain Harvest Festival, local musician Mike Gwinn has stepped in to help guide the annual event. Now in its 17th year, the annual festival will officially kick off this Thursday evening with the "Harvest of Voices" reading at the Blue Sage Center for the Arts.
Gwinn calls it "a big little festival... The fact that it's still local in nature is really important," he said. "There has been a concerted effort to keep the festival local, yet for it to grow and remain self-sustaining."
And grow it has. Last fall the Mountain Harvest Festival was named the Best Event, Festival or Recurring Activity for 2016 by Governor John Hickenlooper.
This year's extensive schedule features some 50 events including farm-to-table dinners, tours, contests, and musical performances, all spread throughout four fun-filled days.
But when it began in the fall of 2001, MHF was a tiny street party to celebrate a group of Western Colorado musicians that recorded a CD at the Paonia studio of Rick Stockton and Helen Highwater. A small CD release party was suggested, and the idea ballooned into a festival, to be held around the time of the fall harvest.
Held the third weekend in September, the first festival included a Friday night chili cook-off, and a poetry reading and arts opening at the Blue Sage, recalled Stockton in a 2015 interview. Saturday night, two venues offered live music by the recording artists, and Sunday a block of Grand Avenue was closed off for more live music and a farm market for local growers. Linda's Bistro owner Linda Little suggested it be called the "Mountain Harvest Festival," and the party was on.
"It was originally a one-shot deal," said Stockton, a board member emeritus with the festival. "Now it's just really taken off."
The festival is a celebration of the bounty the North Fork Valley has to offer: music, the arts, food, family, youth, agriculture, mining, and everything that makes the North Fork Valley a special place to life, said Gwinn. To give it focus, organizers made it their mission to support youth in agriculture and the arts year-round. In 2012, to separate the festival from its philanthropic component, the Mountain Harvest Creative was established. Its mission is to support the festival, the arts, education, agriculture and music throughout the year.
Today the MHC funds numerous programs and partner with nonprofits, artists, farmers, ranchers, musicians and others to provide educational opportunities for youth in the North Fork area. Organizers estimate that the Mountain Harvest Creative's financial impact to the community and the county in 2016 alone was more than $400,000.
"It isn't just a weekend party that's fun," said Gwinn. It's become a vital part of the economy.
"The fact that the festival is still local in nature is really important," added Gwinn. "There has been a concerted effort to keep it local, yet allow it to grow and remain self-sustaining."
Gwinn said a paradigm shift is taking place in the valley. Coal mining, once a mainstay, is in decline, and a new generation that is more focused on sustainable agriculture and the arts is stepping in.
"I think that the Mountain Harvest Creative is a creative point for that in some ways," said Gwinn. The arts community, local schools, creative organizations like the Kids Pasta Project, through which local youth raise money for local nonprofits by preparing and serving homemade pasta dinners, and the growing viticulture (the cultivation and study of grapes) all benefit from the MHC.
The MHC's governing body includes Jay Bagley, Jeff Skeels, Ethel Garrett and Tom Backhus. The board of directors has several new members, including Gwinn, June Soule, Teresa Shishim and Marla Korpar.
"The unique nature of the people of this community is really what this is about," said Gwinn, who called the North Fork area "a vortex of creativity. I think all who are drawn here point to the unique nature of the area."
It's no coincidence that Gwinn ended up in Paonia. He grew up in Laguna Beach in the 1960s and 1970s, where arts festivals are a way of life. As a career musician, he has performed throughout the country and the world. He and wife Patty, an early MHF director, in the early 2000s found a strong attraction to the community. "I really haven't encountered a community as rich and varied ... in opportunity as I have here in Paonia," he said. It has a unique counter-culture "and the concentration of talent is unlike anywhere." Unlike resort towns like Telluride and Aspen, "It has stayed more down to earth."
Paonia Town Park itself, with its gazebo and huge trees provides a festive atmosphere for people to gather, and represents the spirit and the fruits of the valley, said Gwinn.
Gwinn gives a big chunk of the festival's success to Mountain Harvest Creative executive director Heidi Hudek. "She is so good at involving and organizing all the other people," said Gwinn. And the people are what it's really about. "All of that would not be possible without the generosity of its numerous sponsors and volunteers and board members."
This year's musical lineup is one of the best ever. Check out the music scene and all that's happening downtown beginning at 7 p.m. to midnight Friday during "Boogie & Bounce." Enjoy live music, or catch "Awesome, I F---- Shot That," a documentary of a live 2004 Beastie Boys concert at Madison Square Garden," at the Paradise Theatre.
The Saturday Sundown Swing (for the 21-and-older crowd) features nine bands at five downtown Paonia venues. Changes in scheduling, including longer sets and the closing off of the 200 block of Grand Avenue will make it easier to catch and enjoy all of the bands.
Friday afternoon's Elevate Paonia Promenade, which runs from noon-4 p.m., is dedicated to local businesses and the downtown area.
New this year is the "Festival in Flight," a fly-by over the Dan Lawrence Field football stadium at Paonia Town Park (See related story on B7). Friday night is also the big Paonia High School Homecoming football game against the Roaring Fork Rams. Homecoming royalty will be crowned at halftime.
The park also offers a kids' area, where kids of all ages can get creative. Sponsored by the Kampe Foundation, it's open from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Park.
From noon-2 p.m. Sunday, Slow Food Western Slope will serve Disco Soup, a seasonal spread of dishes made with locally-produced foods that would have otherwise gone to waste. A $5 donation per plate is requested. Join the crowd at the Lions Pavilion near the park playground.