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Venetucci Farm's future up in the air 

The lease of our worries

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It’s been bad news after bad news for Venetucci Farm over the past two years. Now there’s another blow to the 200-acre historic working farm located off U.S.-85 near Security: Farm managers Susan Gordon and Patrick Hamilton, along with education coordinator David Rudin have been laid off by the farm’s longtime trustee, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, because a water lease that partially funded the farm’s operations has been suspended. Venetucci represents more than employment to Gordon and Hamilton — it’s their home of 11 years where their two daughters grew up. As such, they felt the Foundation’s offer of a six-month lease was “unacceptable” and intend to move out as soon as possible in the new year.

That leaves agricultural production on indefinite hold, despite the fact that when farmers and local legends Nick and Bambi Venetucci left their land to the Foundation, which had a broader grassroots mission at the time, their intent was that Venetucci remain a working farm and community fixture.

The Foundation set course to part ways with Venetucci well before the farm’s water troubles. The Foundation’s board began discussing moving away from land management years ago, sources confirm.

In May 2016, that goal took on unforeseen urgency, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering the level of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) considered safe for human consumption. Soon after, Venetucci’s well water tested above that level — it pulls from the Widefield Aquifer that had been polluted by nearby Peterson Air Force Base’s use of a fire fighting foam. That prompted the foundation’s CEO, Gary Butterworth, to suspend produce sales mid-season.

Quite new in his role at the time, Butterworth tried to exercise an abundance of caution when deciding to cancel sales and distribution, though many loyal customers felt denied the chance to make their own judgment. (Based on water, soil and plant samples, Colorado’s Chief Epidemiologist Mike Van Dyke has since determined that eating Venetucci’s produce, even with the highest possible PFC uptake levels, likely isn’t dangerous to humans.)

Meanwhile, The Foundation underwent some reorganization: Staff members were laid off; headquarters relocated; and the well-known fiscal sponsorship program, which assisted fledgling charities, ended. The organization was refocusing on donor services, grant administration and the management of private funds for quasi-public endeavors, like the Olympic City USA branding campaign and the municipal airport. Butterworth tasked an advisory committee to seek potential plans for offloading Venetucci. The committee was expected make a decision in March, but the month came and went with no news.

In the months that followed, the Innovation Institute at Colorado College (CC) explored the possibility of assuming responsibility for the farm, but those discussions reached a dead end, both parties confirm.

Recently, the Quad Innovation Partnership — a joint initiative between CC, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the Air Force Academy and Pikes Peak Community College — submitted a proposal to the foundation. This early in the process, the partnership declined to provide further details.

Now, transferring the property to a new owner/operator is complicated by the suspended water lease. The water isn’t used to irrigate crops. (There are other wells for that, drilled back when no one else was pulling from the Widefield Aquifer.) Rather, the water from this particular well is sold, via a 99-year agreement made in 2006, to nearby Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD) and Widefield Water and Sanitation District, with a sublease to Fountain Water District, fetching about $260,000 a year. That revenue accounts for over half of the farm’s annual operating budget. Or, it used to.

Last week, the water districts entered into an abeyance, meaning they’ve moved to suspend the lease (and payments) since they can’t serve contaminated water to their customers. Butterworth decided not to challenge the suspension, emphasizing it wouldn’t be right to “consume resources that would otherwise be deployed to solve the community’s water problem,” which he recognizes as the top priority.

Roy Heald, head of SWSD, “feels bad” for the foundation and the farm, but he’s in a pinch, having already spent over $5.5 million on building new pipes to connect with Colorado Springs Utilities and buying surface water from the Southern Delivery System. In 2016, the Air Force had promised to spend $4.3 million on solutions to the problem that Peterson likely caused. Heald explains, “We were led to believe we would be able to receive reimbursement for the work we did, as part of that $4.3 million, but after months of discussion they determined they didn’t have the authority to reimburse. So, yeah — so far we got nothing.”

Just a few days after the abeyance was executed, Heald says he got word from Air Force officials that the branch will fund the planning and design of a water treatment facility to filter toxins from the groundwater. Venetucci’s well would be among those piped in for treatment. “I understand how crucial [the foundation’s] water supply is to them, and it’s in all our best interest to get this problem solved,” Heald says. “The sooner we can move forward with [treatment] the better.”

Butterworth hopes treatment will come online by 2020, when the lease suspension is set to expire, if not sooner — which would allow the lease to resume with regular payment.

Meanwhile, a national defense spending bill that would, among other things, enable the Air Force to make reimbursement payments has passed both chambers of Congress and is awaiting the president’s signature. Heald indicated that U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, has helped advocate on behalf of local needs, as have both of Colorado’s U.S. senators.

But, just because some money may be coming doesn’t change the fact that the Gordon/Hamilton family has been drinking contaminated water for over a decade now. (PFCs, found in a whole host of consumer and industrial products, have been linked to cancer and detrimental effects on the immune system and liver functioning.) Over 80,000 residents of southern El Paso County are in the same boat, making it the most populous impacted area in the nation.

Gordon has been among the most tireless advocates on behalf of her community — tracking down information, organizing public meetings and trying to hold public officials accountable.

Now that the contamination may claim Venetucci as a casualty, Gordon is distraught. The farm is more than her work; it’s her home and her passion. She was hoping her daughter, who just completed her first season farming her own land down in Pueblo, might one day take over for her at Venetucci. “That kind of familial continuity, I think it’s integral to good farming,” she told the Indy. “Under this vision [Venetucci] isn’t a home, it isn’t a family, it isn’t a diverse ecological community. It’s just a spreadsheet.”

(Butterworth also recently laid off Julie Snyder, manager of Aspen Valley Ranch whose father originally entrusted the Foundation with the land. The facts differed in that case, but the reason for her termination was the same: It was a decision made exclusively due to financial considerations.)

Gordon and Hamilton were first hired by the foundation’s founder, Michael Hannigan, in 2007, to fulfill the wishes of Bambi Venetucci. When Bambi entrusted the land to the Foundation in 2006, two years after her husband Nick’s death, her wish, according to a contemporaneous transition plan, was that the farm, which had been functioning as such since 1862, would remain a working farm that welcomes schoolchildren to pick pumpkins every fall and offers ecological education to the community.

With that in mind, Gordon and Hamilton, with the help of other local farmers and foodies, rehabilitated the land, which had fallen into disrepair after Nick’s death. That included extensive soil remediation and building repairs. Once up and running, the couple began using organic growing practices, offering a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and employing scores of aspiring farmers to work the fields.

Now, Gordon worries that the “lack of imagination [that] permeates the board rooms and war rooms of today” means that Venetucci’s legacy — as a productive working farm in the middle of a food desert — may be lost.

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