This story is starting to feel a bit like a broken record, but Kierstan Pickens, executive director for the Santa Fe Farmers' Market Institute, has stepped down after serving in the role since 2014. In recent months, similar shakeups have come to Creative Santa Fe, the Center for Contemporary Arts and SITE Santa Fe, so one almost has to wonder if something weird is going on, or if these nonprofit administrator types know something we don't.
"It's not a conspiracy," Pickens answers with a laugh, "though the timing is weird."
Like many others leaving their positions, Pickens says the time just feels right—and she's not starting to worry about what job she's doing next yet, either. Instead, she'll focus on her home garden for at least a month. After that? Only time will tell.
A graduate of the College of Santa Fe (which later became Santa Fe University of Art and Design and, later again, a big ol' mostly empty property), Pickens is actually an incognito theater nerd who wound up in the nonprofit sector almost by accident. She came to Santa Fe by way of Greeley, Colorado, because "there was just something about how small CSF was, and how self-directed you could be."
After college, theater tech degree in hand, Pickens landed a volunteer job with the CCA.
"I wore a lot of hats there, and the theater background fed into the job really directly, because there's a lot about theater work that's really collaborative," she tells SFR. "I loved the technical aspects; the lighting, electricity, climbing on ladders."
The CCA opened up other networking opportunities, as did her partner's job at Goldleaf Framemakers back in the day when some of the founders of the arts collective High Mayhem Emerging Arts worked day jobs slapping frames on art and spent their nights dismantling the idea of what art, music and performance could be. Pickens immediately fell in love with High Mayhem and took her volunteering talents to the group's early forays into mini-fests and touring band shows.
Of these experiences, Pickens says, a love for nonprofit work began to emerge. She'd phase from the CCA to the Lensic Performing Arts Center, where she'd further deepen her understanding of the administrative side of nonprofit work. By then it was too late for theater, and working in the world of organizations that help people had its hooks in Pickens. But how does one go from lighting plays to running one of the most well-respected and innovative food- and agriculture-based organizations in the country?
"I have a deep and abiding passion for local food," Pickens says plainly. "I feel like local agriculture is the solution to a lot of bigger issues, so when the opportunity came to get involved with the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, I did."
Pickens' grandfather was a farmer, and her life in New Mexico bolstered an already deep appreciation for the craft. Agriculture at large as well as food chains and systems play such a large role on national and local levels that Pickens wanted to have input into how such concepts impact the people. Enter her work with the Santa Fe Farmers' Market Institute.
The institute is a sister organization which exists separately from the weekly operation of the market and is dedicated solely to providing assistance via resources, funding, educational opportunities and policy work. Perhaps the jewel in Pickens' crown, the Institute's Double Up Food Bucks program works with vendors to literally double SNAP benefits with market vendors for people working with government assistance. And though the program started small in 2014, providing roughly $94,000 in benefits, Pickens says that the USDA took note of the program and has helped to subsidize it—that assistance led to growth of nearly $200,000 in 2019.
"In some ways," Pickens says, however, "I would say a measure of success would be if we saw numbers diminishing."
For now, though, it's working, and that's especially vital in a time of pandemic. As for whether COVID-19 played a role in Pickens' decision to step down, she says it didn't.
"It felt like a really good time personally to move on, and also for the organization to get some fresh ideas coming in," she explains. "We had to cut programs this year—we couldn't have food demos, we couldn't have field trips, we cut down to the absolute essentials—and I'd be lying to say that nonprofit work is easy. It requires a great deal of passion and perseverance and stubbornness and…maybe at times a little bit of blind faith. I'm ready for a little bit of a break."
For the time being, former Big Brothers Big Sisters Mountain Region CEO Andrea Fisher Maril will step into an interim executive director role. Maril tells SFR that she and the institute's board have chosen to evaluate needs and plan strategies for seven months before beginning the search for Pickens' replacement.
"You can't do the search until you know what you're searching for," she tells SFR. "[Pickens] had been in there a long time and did fantastic work, and the board realizes it's time for a deep dive into what comes next—what the programming should be, what the staffing should be, where they need to reach out for funds, what the board needs to look like. I'll know better in a few months, and it probably won't be me—it's too important an organization for it to be me if i'm not the right person."