One of Colorado Springs' most beloved traditions, the annual fall pumpkin giveaway at Venetucci Farm, was halted in 2002 with a terrible drought. Two years later, after giving more than a million pumpkins away to local children, farm owner and community legend Nick Venetucci died.
Michael Hannigan, CEO of Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which has assumed control of the farm, revived the tradition with a relatively small 5,000-pumpkin giveaway last year. This year, he's hoping to go five times as big, and he's got help from a previously untapped resource: students from Colorado College.
A handful of students are wrapping up a summer spent working an acre of land at Venetucci. Their aim is to help establish a collaboration that will educate students and the greater community about organic food and sustainable agriculture.
"People should know where their food comes from," says junior Lissa Crocker.
CC students had tossed around the idea of starting an organic farm for years. But the questions of where and how, and with whose money, were too daunting until this past fall. An opportunity arose when CC junior Marian Pierce began volunteering at Venetucci. There, she met Hannigan, who offered to let CC students take over an acre of the farm.
Pierce set up the internship program with the help of CC President Richard Celeste. He secured funding for the program through the William H. Donner Foundation, which agreed to back the project for the summer.
Similar projects have popped up at universities and colleges across the country during the last few years, as more and more consumers have created a demand for foods grown without synthetic pesticides, hormones or genetic engineering. In 2005, Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, became the first U.S. school to offer a major in organic agriculture.
While a comparatively modest effort, CC's program does bring students close to the inner workings of organic farming. In addition to managing their own plot of land, the interns Crocker, Tori Ulrich, Austin Smith, Alex Lippitt and Molly Dilg plant, water, plow and weed the crops that belong to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.
These tasks require good old-fashioned farm labor. Tim Lambert, the PPCF farm manager, says the interns are learning how to drive tractors, operate heavy machinery, make A-frames for the garden, butcher chickens, and put up barbed-wire fence.
The interns are also helping Hannigan teach community visitors about food production. They have created a "pizza garden," a round garden planted with colorful vegetables, which they use to teach kids about gardening and nutrition.
"I worry that kids think food comes shrink-wrapped or in plastic containers," says Hannigan, a 1975 CC grad and former geology professor at the college. "In fact, some kids that have come to the farm have no idea that food grows, that it comes from seeds that you plant and crops that you harvest."
The interns are just beginning to understand the complexity of organic farming. Ulrich is learning how to set up a compost system, using unsold produce from Whole Foods Market. The interns fertilize their plot with manure from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and hydrate the plants using a drip system that conserves water as it dribbles it under the plants.
A way of life
Since 1997, El Paso County has lost 11 percent of its agricultural land, according to Environment Colorado. Dan Hobbs, who owns the Hobbs Family Farm in Avondale, sees the CC program as a chance to impassion a new generation to help preserve an endangered way of life.
"We need more educated farmers out there," he says.
Hannigan is working with the interns, teaching them about the economics of organic farming. They spent two days on his farm, weeding his plot. Next summer, he hopes to host a series of educational workshops for students about organic farming practices.
Until then, the interns are planning a series of events to bring the community closer the farm, including a September festival, complete with a pancake breakfast and a barn dance in the evening. Pierce is organizing her own Cobb oven workshop, where she will teach the community about cooking in an adobe oven.
With all their efforts, the students hope to convince CC to make the farm a permanent part of its programming.
"There is a lot of social good that comes from people working together on the land," Pierce says.