Born out of a CD release party and small street festival celebrating the bounty of the North Fork Valley, the 18th annual Mountain Harvest Festival opens this Thursday with the annual Paint Paonia painting contest, the "Harvest to Table Dinner" at the Living Farm Cafe, and the annual Harvest of Voices at the Blue Sage Center for the Arts.
From its earliest days the festival has grown and expanded. In 2008, the MHF board of directors shifted its mission "to celebrate and serve local communities by showcasing the bounty of the North Fork Valley." The nonprofit Mountain Harvest Creative (MHC) was founded to provide education opportunities in the arts and agriculture through collaborations and fundraisers, and to guide the festival into the future.
The event is now overseen by the seven-member MHC board including president Tom Backhus, secretary Ethel Garrett, treasurer Andee Rose-Small, and board members Marla Korpar, Melanie Jean, Teresa Shishim, and festival co-founder and board member emeritus, Rick Stockton. A 17-member team of directors, coordinators, designers, artists, photographers and videographers, and numerous volunteers help make the festival a reality and support the mission.
This year's festival features four days of activities for kids and adults, fundraisers, contests, and a showcase of local tastes and talents including more than 25 musical acts, magic and magical performances, farm and winery tours, exquisite food and drink and community gatherings.
"We have a great team," said Backhus. The five women on the board each bring special talents and energy to the table. "I wouldn't have accepted (the position) if those ladies were not involved."
In 2016 the festival received the Governor's Award for Excellence for "Best Event, Festival or Recurring Activity." It's surprising that a small town like Paonia can win such a big award, said festival director Josh Behrman, who joined the team last spring. "I was shocked."
Behrman replaces four-year festival director Heidi Hudek, who remains involved with the festival in other capacities. As founder and president of the Aspen-based Mountain Groove Productions, Berhman brings extensive experience to the team. He is the long-time event contractor for the Town of Snowmass, he has attracted world-class talents to the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen and Ute Theater in Rifle, and produces the Palisade Bluegrass Festival -- now in its 11th year, the Snowmass Chili Pepper and Brews Fest and other major events.
"I love small-town, boutique festivals," said Behrman. Of the many festivals he's worked with, this one stands out for the dedication and pride in Paonia that everyone has. "It's that passion and dedication that's kept it going for 18 years," he said.
The festival is also unique in that there are so many moving parts, said Behrman. The biggest challenge has been getting to know each team coordinator and understand the history behind the more than 40 events happening throughout the festival.
It's also unique for its many coordinated events. "Festivals usually have three components; this one has 30."
Behrman said he had no plans to change anything, but as with any ongoing event, "You just want to keep things fresh," he said. Still part of the festival are the Chili Cook-Off, live music, kids activities, the Harvest of Voices and Paint Paonia events, and downtown's Elevate Paonia Promenade on Friday. Friday night's Pub Crawl and the Saturday Sundown Swing still feature numerous local musical acts spread across several downtown venues.
Gone is the popular Grape Stomp due to reasons beyond the board's control. Among the additions are more collaborations, said Behrman, including the MHF 5k Run to benefit Paonia Elementary School, and a reading in collaboration with the Paonia Library by award-winning journalist, author and former High Country News writer Rebecca Clarren. She will read from her debut novel, Kickdown, Friday afternoon at the Paonia Library. "It's an exciting book," said Behrman. "It's got that wilderness vibe."
Also new is the Saturday night "Taste of the Ark," a four-course farm-to-table fundraiser presented by Slow Food Western Slope at Edesia Community Kitchen. Chef Kyle Mendenhall will prepare the meal from the "Three Sisters seeds of beans, corn and squash" harvested from Mark Waltermire's Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss.
The festival takes to the sky at 10 a.m. Saturday with a flyover of Town Park and Dan Lawrence football field. The aerial exhibition was suggested by Larry and Ethel Garrett and was scheduled for the 2017 festival before being canceled by high winds.
The flyover is not only a visual treat, it's a reminder that Paonia has a "sweet little airport," said Larry Garrett, a retired U.S. Air Force and commercial pilot and member of the all-volunteer West Elk Mountain Rescue. "It's kind of a hidden asset that's often overlooked because it's not in town."
Movement and magic are part of the festival. At 4:45 Saturday the Sopris Soarers from the Aerial Artistry Academy in Carbondale will bring the art of aerial dance to Town Park, and magician Ty Gallenbeck will perform mind-blowing magic at 11 a.m. Sunday.
For the kids the Serendipity Kids' activity area is open from noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Sponsored by the Kampe Foundation, kids can enjoy activities, workshops, art projects, a harvest relay, animal fashion show and more.
Experience downtown from noon-4 p.m. Friday at the Elevate Paonia Promenade. Sponsored by Elevate Fiber and the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, visitors can discover what local businesses have to offer, win prizes, play Business Bingo and sample local products and services.
Back for a third year, the Farmer's Market will bring the harvest to Town Park on Saturday and Sunday.
Teresa Shishim said she joined the board because the festival supports so many of the things that make the North Fork Valley a special place to live. A mother, wife and business owner, her talent is in marketing and promoting the festival. "I'm really interested in developing our economy," said Shishim.
Based on money generated by vendors, income raised for nonprofits other than the MHC, and money spent on products, food, lodging and the evening in-town venues, the board estimates that the 2017 festival alone had an economic impact to Delta County of $164,600, said Shishim. It also generated $3,292 in local sales taxes.
Calculate an economic multiplier -- the number of times a dollar changes hands within the community before being spent elsewhere -- of 1.5 percent and the impact was $246,900. "That's really conservative," said Shishim. "And remember that last year it was rainy."
While the festival happens rain or shine, everyone's hoping the rain stays away during the festival. So far, said Shishim, "The forecast looks good."