Rogue Valley Farm to School has hired former Lomakatsi Restoration Project Director of Development Sheila Carder as its next executive director, the local nonprofit announced last week.

Carder, who accepted the job July 6 and started working for Farm to School last Tuesday, replaces Tracy Harding, who is relocating to Northern California to manage a regional food hub called the Capay Valley Farm Shop.

The hiring of Carder culminated a lengthy search that began after Harding announced in December of 2015 that she would be leaving in September of 2017. The nationwide search conducted by a four-member committee yielded 17 “competitive” applicants, according to Farm to School. In the end they chose Carder, whose background in fundraising and “passion for community-based sustainable agriculture” — she and her husband built, managed and owned SunStone Artisan Bakery — put her over the top. The latter was important to a 501c3 organization whose stated mission is to educate children “about our food system through hands-on farm and garden programs, and by increasing local foods in school meals.”

“Well, (Carder) has a combination of a few interests and skills that seemed to make her a really well suited new executive director,” said Farm to School program director Melina Barker, who was on the search committee. “She has her roots in the food movement. She’s really dedicated to improving the food system and supporting local and healthy food for children, from her work that she did down in California all the way to opening her own local bakery with her husband and being on the board of the Ashland Food Co-op. And then she has extraordinary development skills, some really creative and innovative fundraising skills which is a great asset for an executive director.”

Carder said she was “over the moon” when she first learned of Farm to School’s decision and will be working closely with Harding over the next few weeks during a transitional phase.

“We are both really committed to having a smooth transition,” Carder said.

“It all feels great,” Harding said. “I’m really excited to get to a place where I’ll be able to work more directly with organic producers to increase their market share, and I think Sheila is going to do a great job. The organization is strong. We have many longtime staff members who are really dedicated to the programs that they work in. I’m leaving on the heels of the Oregon legislature deciding to continue funding for Oregon grown and processed purchasing at school districts. It didn’t look like it was going to get funded and that would have been a really sad way to say goodbye.”

Harding, who joined Farm to School in 2009, led the organization through an eight-year period of tremendous growth during which the staff increased from two employees working out of their homes to 14 and the annual budget from $50,000 to $300,000. Originally, Farm to School hosted programs at one farm site. Now, it’s at five.

Farm to School has adjusted accordingly, rewriting its executive director job description before hiring Carder to focus on fundraising. The plan, said Carder, is to hire somebody else who can focus solely on Farm to School’s farm to cafeteria program. Farm to School is hosting the Harvest Dinner on Oak Street on Sept. 10 at Standing Stone Brewing Company, the proceeds from which she hopes will cover the new position. Tickets for the event, which will include a silent auction, cost $90 each and can be purchased through a link at standingstonebrewing.com or by calling 541-482-2448.

“As the way that grass roots organizations grow, (Harding) ended up really having two jobs on her plate,” Barker said. “She had this passion for the farm’s cafeteria work connecting food service and local farmers to increase the use of local foods in cafeterias.”

But on top of that, Harding also shouldered duties more commonly associated to executive directors, such as fundraising, development and managing the staff.

“So, it just became clear to us that as she became more and more successful in the farm to cafeteria world that that really didn’t belong as part of the executive director duties, so we’re hoping to fill that position separately. We didn’t think it made a lot of sense or was very realistic to find someone willing and able to do both those jobs.”

A graduate of UC Santa Cruz’s farm and garden apprenticeship program, Carder was the development director for Marin Organic for four years before moving to Ashland to start SunStone Artisan Bakery in 2009. Later, she worked as the development director for Regenerative Design Institute in Marin County, California, and held the same position for ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum from 2011 to 2015. According to Carder’s resume, ScienceWorks’ annual budget increased from $650,000 to $1.1 million while she was there.

Her hope at Farm to School, she said, is to spearhead similar growth. And she can’t wait to get started.

“You are what you eat, and if we’re not serving children wonderful, fresh, healthy food we’re not building a population and a citizenship that’s going to be healthy in the long run,” she said. “And then the best part of it is we’ve got all these wonderful local farms that are right here at our fingertips. We just have to connect the two.”

—Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.