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Venetucci Farm's not going anywhere but it's reaching out everywhere

click to enlarge Patience and physical labor helped make Patrick Hamilton and his wife, Susan Gordon, successful farmers in Caon City. Now theyre caring for Venetucci Farm. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Photo by Brienne Boortz
  • Patience and physical labor helped make Patrick Hamilton and his wife, Susan Gordon, successful farmers in Caon City. Now theyre caring for Venetucci Farm.

Although it's become trendy to spend Saturday mornings at a local farmers' market, little of the food for sale there is actually grown on a local farm. As Colorado Springs grew into an urban center over the past four decades, most of its farmers took developers' money and ran. Before long, the only plow still turning over dozens of acres of soil in the Colorado Springs area belonged to Nick Venetucci.

This trend echoed a common cognitive separation. For most of us, farm and city exist as separate entities, in separate places, serving separate functions. Since the mid-1800s, the dichotomy between town and country, urban and rural, city and farm has been central to people ranging from nerdy social scientists to slick political-party strategists.

But the venerable Venetucci witnessed the flight of local farmers with alarm. He determined that his land would not be developed, and turned down several chances at a multimillion-dollar payday to preserve the farm and its place in Colorado Springs.

Before his death in 2004 at age 93, the much-beloved Venetucci entrusted preservation of his farm and the tradition of giving away thousands of pumpkins to local children every October to Michael Hannigan and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.

Under Hannigan's leadership, PPCF has embraced the chance to secure the legacy of Nick and his wife, Bambi. Husband-and-wife team Susan Gordon and Patrick Hamilton, formerly of Cañon City's Learning Ground Farm, control operations. Larry Stebbins coordinates its educational programs.

Together they have replanted the pumpkin patch, opened a farm stand on-site, participated in the Colorado Farm and Art Market, sold food to area restaurants and opened the farm to countless groups of children and families who want to learn more about sustainable, organic agriculture. According to the farm's Web site, they've chosen to model theirs after Polyface Farm in Virginia the environmentally friendly farm featured in the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Their Venetucci project has tremendous potential to re-establish a substantive, reflexive relationship between the farm and our city.

Farm and fields

It's a cool autumn afternoon as I turn off U.S. Highway 85 into Venetucci Farm. Backlit by the bright afternoon sun, golden fall foliage shimmers in the distance. Open fields, speckled with flaxen straw, spread westward, interrupted occasionally by low-slung sheds, fenced pens and parked farm vehicles. The fields are fallow now, with only a few winter cover crops offering hints of green against the sandy brown topsoil. An almost preternatural tranquility hangs in the air.

As I amble casually over the uneven ground with Susan Gordon, she reminds me that what happens on the farm is neither utterly romantic toil nor simply grunt work.

"It's real labor," she says.

She should know. She and Hamilton ran Learning Ground for more than six years. Like so many other families, they've juggled two careers, soccer schedules for two daughters and an active community life.

Now they've joined a long line of farmers who have worked this Colorado Springs farm since 1862. When the Venetuccis purchased the place in 1936, Nick left behind his career as a professional baseball player so he could help his parents work the land. He handled operations for nearly 70 years.

"Nick's whole life was about doing things for people," says PPCF founding director Hannigan.

And when the foundation accepted the farm an "in perpetuity" arrangement that Venetucci made before his death it accepted that unofficial mission as well.

Farm and home

Thousands of locals bring home the iconic Venetucci product a bright orange pumpkin each year. Uneven weather, difficult soil conditions and hungry deer limited 2007's overall harvest to 10,000 pumpkins. Next year, Gordon says, she and Hamilton will devote nearly 30 acres to the patch, in hopes of yielding somewhere near 30,000 pumpkins to share with elementary school students and families.

click to enlarge Susan Gordon: Healthy soil is becoming a scarce resource in this country. - PHOTO BY BRIENNE BOORTZ

That leaves roughly 160 acres for other projects enough space, Gordon says, to make the farm a potential "major supplier of local food."

And, she adds, it has potential to enlighten people about their food choices.

"The best way to become more educated and informed about food and the way it's grown," she says, is to cultivate "a direct relationship with the farmer."

While Susan and Patrick might not be ready for 600,000 new friends, they are ready to tell people why their work matters.

Most produce today travels thousands of miles from farm to market by plane and/or truck, an environmental burden that threatens the future viability of agriculture. What's more, growing vegetables able to withstand these long journeys often requires genetic modification and almost always results in a decrease in nutritional value.

These breeding programs, and agribusiness' increasing insistence on standardization, have drastically reduced the variety of produce grown worldwide. Taken together, these changes have significantly reduced the long-term security of our food supply.

But the supply of fruits and vegetables is essential. The rapidly increasing rates of obesity and diabetes among young children, Hannigan says, represent "a ripple effect of the foods children eat." Offering young people "great, healthy food grown locally instead of Twinkies and cola," Hannigan believes, "will help a number of critical community concerns around overeating, food allergies, diabetes and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder."

This is where Stebbins comes in. With Hannigan, Gordon and Hamilton, he's begun a Junior Master Gardener program, and this season he offered a range of workshops tailored to visiting students. Future programs, separately tailored to children, families and adults, will follow the cyclical nature of farming. Spring classes may focus on seeds, soil and compost, and fall classes on bringing produce from field to table.

Pointing to a few rows of now-flaxen corn stalks, Gordon recalls the group of students who'd helped her pick the fresh popping corn that had grown there. As the kids plucked the cobs, shucked the husks and collected the kernels, many learned for the first time that popcorn begins its life not in a bag, but as a small green plant, which is subsequently tended and weeded. According to Gordon, most were no less surprised to learn that it could be popped without a microwave.

Farm and city

The most tangible tie between Venetucci Farm and the Springs metropolitan area is the land itself. Preserving 190 acres of urban land for farming was one of Nick Venetucci's greatest gifts to the region. It's both a working asset and a treasure, especially because healthy soil, Gordon says, is "becoming a scarce resource in this country."

One hundred and fifty years of continuous agriculture has hurt the farm's soil health, and it needs a long, slow infusion of minerals, nutrients and organic matter in order to continue filling our stomachs in the years to come.

A fascinating cast of characters people and animals are already at work to improve and stabilize the soil. A large flock of chickens roams freely over the grounds. As Gordon and I collect fresh eggs from their open house, she tells me that the chickens munch on potentially problematic insects and nourish the soil with their droppings.

There's also a small herd of heirloom Tamworth hogs, which greet us with satisfying baritone snorts. Dark, rusty brown with straight, coarse hair, longish necks and snouts, they're prettier than your average pig. Usually raised for their bacon, these pigs do a great deal of work around the farm to earn their keep, rooting up and eating weeds, scratching and aerating the soil, and leaving behind manure that's nutritious for the ground.

Meanwhile, friends and neighbors provide manual labor, home-turned compost and the occasional batch of exotic animal manure. Gordon had just received a shipment of alpaca dung when I arrived. Bestway Disposal has been bringing by loads of horse and cattle manure for some time, and Bristol Brewing Co. sends over its spent barley and hops, which nurtures both the soil and the animals.

There's a growing revival of sustainable agriculture and ranching afoot in the Arkansas River Valley, and Gordon and Hamilton see an opportunity and responsibility to support their fellow farmers. However successful they might become, they know that they cannot move the local food movement forward alone. Susan says that she and Patrick are hopeful that the profile and resources they enjoy at Venetucci will help them introduce other producers in the region to local consumers.

Perhaps the most important connection between farm and city, after all, gets made in people's minds. That means thinking of donating labor and equipment, and financial support (in the form of patronage). Venetucci Farm gives back with healthy food on our tables, frosty pints of Bristol's Venetucci Pumpkin Ale, and a sparkle in our children's eyes as they pick their own pumpkins.

As much as those pumpkins are the touchstone of Nick Venetucci's legacy, the farm has always been about much more. In the 1950s and 1960s, Hannigan tells me, its sweet corn and asparagus achieved national renown as Nick packed them off for choosy restaurateurs from San Francisco to New York City.

So, Hannigan says, there will always be a commitment to producing pumpkins for the community, but there will also be a commitment to producing more than pumpkins. Specifically, Hannigan, Gordon, Hamilton, and Stebbins will focus on growing food for the community, preserving the richness of the soil, and sustaining the eating life of Colorado Springs.

scene@csindy.com

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