February 15, 2017 News » Cover Story

A toxic water supply has left beloved Venetucci Farm in limbo 

click to enlarge NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein

To say that the 2016 season didn't go well for Venetucci Farm is an understatement.

It was historically bad, but not for lack of rain or a pest infestation or anything that farmers are accustomed to dealing with. First, toxic chemicals discovered in the farm's water supply in May prompted the suspension of produce sales mid-season. Then, at season's end, a brutal hail storm wiped out the remaining solace of Venetucci's fans — its hallmark pumpkin crop.

News isn't improving. In a normal year, planting would be coming up in late March, but operations on the farm are currently stalled. This could be the first season in over a century that area consumers go without fresh, local food from the region's oldest working farm.

Uncertainty reigns. Nobody knows the full consequences of irrigating crops with water containing perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) at levels above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for drinking. And then there's the question of who will own and run Venetucci Farm, which was entrusted to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in 2006 by Bambina "Bambi" Venetucci after the 2004 death of her husband, local farmer Dominico "Nick" Venetucci.

Bambi passed away in 2015 with the desire and belief that the family's land would carry on in perpetuity as a working farm that welcomes schoolchildren to come pick pumpkins, free of charge, every fall. (Their generosity remains legendary — there's a statue of Nick next to the Pioneers Museum and a depiction of him gifting a pumpkin on the label of Bristol Brewing Company's highly popular annual Venetucci Pumpkin Ale.)

But, even before the water crisis arose, PPCF, under new leadership, had begun reevaluating all of its legacy assets, including Venetucci Farm. Over the past few months, an advisory committee has been meeting to vet visions for a post-PPCF Venetucci, with a recommendation expected in early March. The board will take it from there — without any chance for public input.

Whatever the foundation decides to do with the farm, recently installed CEO Gary Butterworth is unequivocal that the legacy of Nick and Bambi Venetucci will carry on. But no matter who stewards it into the future, their legacy may already be tainted by decades of chemical build-up in the aquifer beneath the farm.

Indeed, none of this sits well with longtime consumers like across-the-street neighbor Brittany McCollough. She's less worried about what's in the water — "everything's poison these days," she notes dryly — and more worried that those who actually eat Venetucci-grown food no longer have a seat at the table.

"It seems like the 'community' part has been taken out of 'community foundation,'" she says, telling the Independent that "[consumers] have been left in the dark even though we're impacted the most." A teacher during the school year, McCollough helps run Venetucci's farm stand over the summers, distributing weekly boxes of produce to community-supported agriculture (CSA) members in exchange for her own share. She's been getting fresh vegetables for herself and her young son this way for about seven years. For her, all the extraneous factors affecting the farm are beside the point. "There are so many choices to make in the world and knowing the people who grow my food, right across the street in my own watershed — that's really important to me," she says.

That used to be the only way to get food.

According to historical files kept on the farm, the property title to the land now known as Venetucci Farm dates back to 1862, a decade before the City of Colorado Springs was incorporated. Over the years, it was held by a series of different owners, including a former governor who ran an unsuccessful hog farm. In 1932, A.W. Haigler took out a loan against the farm from the Venetucci family, but fell behind on payments and other expenses over time. So, in 1936, he deeded the property to Nicholas and Marguerite Venetucci, parents of our Nick, who moved the family onto the farm later that year from their home in Papeton (now known as Venetian Village, north of downtown Colorado Springs). The move also helped them escape tragic reminders of their late son and brother, Rocco, who died from the impact of a freak well water explosion there.

Nick's older brother, Tony Venetucci, wrote that surrounding neighbors didn't think the family would last long on the farm. (This was during the Great Depression, after all.) "It was tough going, but we had to stick it out for there was no other choice," he wrote about the early years, reflecting in 1972.

At first, the family relied on Fountain Creek, or as Tony called it, "sewer water," for its irrigation needs. The water soured the taste of the sweet corn, so in 1941 they prospected downward. The Venetuccis were the first to experiment with drilling wells into and pumping from the Widefield Aquifer. The following year, the U.S. Army selected the region for a new post site and acquired 815 acres of land from the Venetuccis for $10 an acre to develop what's now Fort Carson. That left behind 205 for the family to grow asparagus, alfalfa, sweeter sweet corn and, of course, pumpkins.

The family, in Tony's words, was always "happy to help the community." During a drought in the '50s, for example, they donated an easement so the Broadmoor Hotel could pump well water through a pipeline built on farmland. Their generosity allowed the Broadmoor to keep its golf course green during those dry years, according to an archived Gazette-Telegraph write-up. Rather than accept payment for water pulled from their wells, the Venetuccis threw a barbecue with orchestral accompaniment for the crew that worked on the project.

When both parents died within months of each other in 1961, their three sons — Tony, Nick and Joe — took over. (Their sisters, Nina and Mary, handled all the domestic work because farming was still considered "men's work" at the time.) Later that year, middle child Joe suffered a brain injury in a farm accident, and Nick, the youngest son, became caretaker of both the farm and his brother. Eldest son Tony got married some years later, and stopped helping with day-to-day operations, though he was still involved on the financial and legal side. By that point, most other nearby working farms had faded out of existence, causing Tony to lament in his notes that "an area like the Pikes Peak Region without agriculture, it seems to me, would be an area out of balance."

click to enlarge Mike Bristol (left) gifts PPCF's Michael Hannigan with pumpkin beer proceeds. - COURTESY BRISTOL BREWING CO.
  • Courtesy Bristol Brewing Co.
  • Mike Bristol (left) gifts PPCF's Michael Hannigan with pumpkin beer proceeds.

Venetucci Farm stayed steady amid the tumult of creeping urban development, litigious water disputes and the increasing mechanization of farming practices. Despite all the responsibilities of running a full-scale operation, Nick began welcoming thousands of schoolchildren to comb their fields for the perfectly plump pumpkin every October — a tradition that locals still cherish. Soon after that tradition began in the '50s, Nick courted his sister's friend, Bambini "Bambi" Macrantonio. His family, knowing she was blind, urged against it, but he went ahead and married her in 1968.

At 91 years old, Nick decided to give up farming during the particularly dry 2002 season. That year, he and Bambi made preparations to donate the farm to PPCF, which was then under the direction of its founder, Michael Hannigan. Two years later, after a day spent out on his beloved tractor, Nick died of a massive stroke. "What a way to go!" reads a commemorative placard at the farm.

With the help of Bambi and other local stakeholders, the foundation developed a plan to bring the farm back to working condition. Larga Vista Farms' Doug Wiley, a fourth-generation Arkansas Valley grower, remembers the transition. "When [Nick] couldn't farm anymore it all went to weeds. Then, the foundation got ahold of it and they asked for my help to bring it around again. I don't think people realize what goes into that," he tells the Indy.

The rehabilitation effort included building up the soil, repairing dingy buildings and hiring new farmers. That's when Hannigan (who declined the Indy's interview request) hired Susan Gordon and her husband Patrick Hamilton, who had been farming near Cañon City, to bring the farm back to — and beyond — what it had been for over a century.

During their tenure, Venetucci Farm has instituted organic growing practices and partnered to install the region's first community solar array. They began hosting a summer camp for kids, offering a CSA program and employing scores of aspiring farmers to work the fields. Things were pretty much peachy until last year.

click to enlarge PPCF helped raise this snazzy new barn on the farm, which often hosts community events for nonprofits. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • PPCF helped raise this snazzy new barn on the farm, which often hosts community events for nonprofits.

The pollution issue first surfaced in May 2016, though it had been lurking below for decades.

On May 17, the EPA issued a provisional health advisory lowering the level of perfluorinated chemicals considered potentially unsafe for human consumption down from 400 to 70 parts per trillion. (For reference, 70 ppt is about a drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Still, some scientists insist no amount of the stuff is safe.)

PFCs are a pervasive and persistent class of man-made chemicals that have been around since the 1950s. PFOA and PFOS, two of the long-chain variety, can be found in a wide array of industrial and consumer products, like non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics and that crinkly fast food packaging. They're all still readily available for purchase despite research linking them to health effects like low birth weight, various kinds of cancer and immune system malfunction. The EPA acknowledged those dangers in 2000 in an internal memo when 3M, the primary manufacturer of the chemicals, went through a voluntary phase-out. In other words, the agency knew about the risks for nearly two decades before issuing a health advisory — which is still just a recommendation, not a regulation.

When the limit was lowered in May, water supplies serving over 5 million Americans were deemed dangerously contaminated. Of all the affected regions nationwide, the one to the south of Colorado Springs is the most populous — around 70,000 residents in Fountain, Security and Widefield drink water pumped from the tainted Widefield Aquifer.

It's thought that PFCs entered the water supply at nearby Peterson Air Force Base, where personnel have stocked and sprayed a chemical-laden foamy fire retardant for decades. Early in the summer, Air Force officials conceded that the base may be a source of the contaminant and voluntarily committed $4.3 million for water treatment efforts as a gesture of good faith. The Army Corps of Engineers released a preliminary assessment at the end of the summer that confirmed the possibility. This month, Col. Doug Scheiss of Peterson Air Force Base told El Paso County Commissioners that the Air Force has a five-year plan to rid the base and nearby airport of chemicals. He also hinted that the Department of Defense is budgeting for more spending on environmental mitigation.

He declined to share more detail but advised that a final report on the role of Peterson Air Force Base in contaminating Widefield Aquifer is expected in the first half of this year.

Meanwhile, state public health officials are looking into other possible sources of PFC contamination, as multiple class-action lawsuits take aim at the corporations that manufacture products with PFCs. If plaintiffs' attorneys prevail, thousands of people stand to get compensated for their injuries. But a resolution in the case is many years away.

So for now, it's unclear who, if anyone, is on the hook and when, if ever, they'll be held to account.

click to enlarge Even with Venetucci up-and-running, barely 2 percent of our regional food supply is locally grown. - COURTESY BRISTOL BREWING CO.
  • Courtesy Bristol Brewing Co.
  • Even with Venetucci up-and-running, barely 2 percent of our regional food supply is locally grown.

Amid all those moving parts and players, Venetucci Farm stands in a unique position.

It has five wells on-site — one reserved for private residential use, one leased to the Security Water and Sanitation District for municipal use and three for use in irrigation. When tested for PFCs, the residential well came in at 205 parts per trillion, according to the El Paso County Public Health spokesperson, Danielle Oller. That means the Gordon/Hamilton family has been drinking water containing PFCs at about three times the EPA's recommended limit since 2007.

Per the Air Force's pledge, the family has been getting shipments of bottled water (though the plastic feels out of place in their otherwise agrarian home). Those shipments will end once a filtration system is installed on the well, which the Air Force will move ahead with now that Gordon, on behalf of PPCF, agreed to take legal ownership of the filtration system. It's not as good a deal as it seems, given that replacing the carbon filter every five years costs nearly $400. (Replacement may need to happen more often, however, considering the filters aren't rated for "non-standard constituents" like PFCs.) Pre-filters also need to be replaced. The Air Force will foot the bill for the first set of four replacement pre-filters, which should get rotated every six to nine months, but after those run out, Gordon — or whomever comes to own the well — will be on the hook for every subsequent $95 set.

Then there's the municipal well located across a field from the farmhouse. The water drawn from that well is leased to Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD) which subleases to Fountain Utilities. Both have since moved their systems off untreated well water, meaning water from this well is serving no one for now. The lessees have already made 2017 payments, but SWSD general manager Roy Heald says "we'll probably be negotiating with the farm this next year to see how [the lease] can be modified now that the water's not usable."

Nearly every factor is variable. "If we get treatment online to make it usable again, I don't know who will pay for it," Heald says. "We'll have to discuss how that affects the lease."

The 99-year municipal water lease brings in about $250,000 to the farm every year, so for that to be jeopardized is a big deal.

Finally, there's the farm's irrigation wells. Unlike the other wells, no one was obligated to test the ones used to water the farm's crops. That's because it's not clear whether and to what degree plants grown with this contaminated water actually take in the contaminant. Still, Gordon was quick to send out a letter in June informing CSA members of the issue and offering refunds to those who felt uncomfortable eating produce grown with the dubious water. Only two — a pregnant woman and a self-proclaimed toxi-phobe — took the buyout.

Ultimately, higher-ups wanted to be sure the harvest was safe before letting people eat it. So, PPCF's Butterworth made the call to suspend produce sales in July. "We wanted to take an abundance of caution," the CEO told the Indy at the time.

click to enlarge Pumpkins (shown here in 1966) are Venetucci's hallmark, but they depend on crop rotation. - STAN PAYNE, COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PIKES PEAK LIBRARY DISTRICT, 40058
  • Stan Payne, Courtesy Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District, 40058
  • Pumpkins (shown here in 1966) are Venetucci's hallmark, but they depend on crop rotation.

Scientists were called in to assess Venetucci's produce. Ultimately, the state health department determined it's probably safe to eat. That finding was sent to the farm in early December.

Initially, Gordon interpreted it as a green light. She could spread the information far and wide, then let customers make their own decisions based on it. In a normal year, she'd already be signing up CSA members and planning for the season ahead.

But her boss took a different view. "From my perspective," Butterworth says, "we have not arrived at a conclusion for operations in 2017."

Venetucci will still do the traditional pumpkin giveaway and offer scaled-back educational offerings, but growing food to feed the community is still up in the air. And that's not because of outstanding water issues — it's because the foundation may soon let go of the farm as part of a deep and ongoing reorganization.

When PPCF founder Michael Hannigan retired in 2014, the board hired local nonprofit leader Trudy Strewler Hodges to take his place. There was something of a staff exodus during that time, so her stint was brief. Gary Butterworth, then with El Pomar Foundation, was brought on as interim CEO early last year and got the job for good in July. He can take neither credit nor blame for the foundation's current restructuring, as the board's strategic plan was developed before his time. He's been tasked with executing it.

The first major shakeup came in October when PPCF canceled its fiscal sponsorship program, which had allowed fledgling charities to operate under the foundation's 501(c)3 status. The precise relationship outlined in a standard agreement shows PPCF took a cut of the funds' revenue in exchange for administrative services like accepting and processing donations, providing tax receipts for donors and tracking fundraising information in quarterly reports. As the Indy reported at the time, the foundation cited high administrative costs and mission drift as justification for the move, but provided some assistance to the departing charities.

click to enlarge Whatever the future brings, the farm's current steward insists its essence will live on. But some observers worry the community won't always be welcome. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Whatever the future brings, the farm's current steward insists its essence will live on. But some observers worry the community won't always be welcome.

Still, the move blindsided some 150 charities that were then under the PPCF umbrella, which suddenly had to adapt or die. Some, like Bike Clinic Too, which helps those in need get bikes, have been absorbed into other, more established nonprofits (UpaDowna, in that case). Others, like Mountain Fold Books, closed for good. Others are still under the umbrella of PPCF until year's end.

Around the same time, Butterworth also directed staff cuts, an office relocation to the statelier Alamo Corporate Center downtown and the addition of Olympic City USA and the municipal airport as designated funds. All these moves, he says, stem from a renewed focus on the foundation's "core competencies" which include "donor services, community leadership and legacy asset management."

Venetucci Farm falls into that latter category.

"As the recipient entrusted with that gift, we want to ensure we honor donor intent," Butterworth says. "The foundation played a key role in preserving this community asset as a home for long-standing traditions. Now that it's such a complex operation, we're looking at, 'What is the next phase of Venetucci [Farm]?'"

That's why the foundation's board convened a seven-person advisory committee to come up with options for transferring ownership of the farm. "Our charge was to go out to various entities — nonprofits, companies, individuals — to see what kind of interest there was in getting involved with the farm," Committee Chair Nolan Schriner, a retired urban planner, tells the Indy.

By now, the committee has whittled down some 20 options to two: gifting the farm to Springs Rescue Mission, a nonprofit that serves the local homeless population, or spinning it off as its own 501(c)3.

SRM spokesperson Thomas Voss acknowledged the possibility, but declined to share details about SRM's proposal. Schriner and other committee members are similarly tight-lipped. "We don't want to release a plan that's not finished," Schriner says, "but this is a passionate group of people [that] wants it to be a working farm that's sustainable and has the educational emphasis too ... Whatever we end up with will meet that criteria."

District 5 Colorado Springs City Councilor Jill Gaebler, who's up for re-election in April, sits on the PPCF committee as a longtime advocate for growing a stronger and more resilient local food economy. "I've been a stickler throughout this process — really skeptical of everything — because I love the farm so much," Gaebler says. "But I've got to say, I'm excited. Right now, just 1 to 2 percent of the food we eat is produced locally, and I think either of these options could really move the needle. So I see this as a great opportunity."

Butterworth stresses that, at this point, no option is off the table — including the foundation retaining ownership or some other alternative entirely. He expects the committee will make a recommendation to the board in early March.

click to enlarge No caption - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • No caption

With closed-door negotiations underway, those on the outside just want to see Venetucci keep on keepin' on.

"It finally hit me the other day that they may turn it into something else," says Wiley who, as a teenager, was inspired by Nick's giving spirit to start giving away excess produce from his own farm. "I've met people in the Springs who don't even realize there are farmers down where we come from. Having Venetucci right there in Fountain keeps it in the front of their mind[s] that food actually comes from the ground."

Wiley by no means sees Venetucci's ground as tainted. In fact, he was allayed enough by the health department's findings that he bought some of Venetucci's chickens that drank the contaminated water. For him, it's all relative.

"If people knew what was on the stuff they buy in grocery stores, they wouldn't be eating it," he says. "We do our best to grow clean food, of course, but we all live near a military base or our neighbors are spraying or something. So when we're talking about organic, there's really no paradise left."

Gordon, for her part, is angry that she and her family have been drinking contaminated water for years, but defends her crops. "There's no such thing as 100 percent food anymore, there's just so much toxic stuff in our environment," she says. "I wish we were already signing up our CSA members and getting ready to plant in the spring. We would provide the PFC testing results and let people make informed decisions about what they eat."

It's not up to her, though, and she's resigned to that. "This isn't about saving my job or saving Patrick's [Hamilton] job," she says. "Venetucci is not just the last urban farm — it's a consciousness-raiser for the people who visit and connect there. People have got to believe it's important to preserve that."


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