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Beyond the Pumpkin Patch

 As the first signs of autumn begin to take shape across the Pikes Peak Region, folks with any amount of history here give a silent nod and note of thanks for cherished memories visiting Venetucci Farm with their children to pick out a pumpkin. Back in the day, Nick Venetucci, dubbed the “Pumpkin Man” gave away thousands of pumpkins annually to schoolchildren across the region. 

Times, however, have changed and so has Venetucci Farm but it remains a community icon and gift, thanks to the generosity of Venetucci and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, who received the property in 2004.

Susan Gordon, who runs the farm with her husband, Patrick Hamilton, respects what Venetucci Farm was to Colorado Springs, but she’s even more passionate about what it is now and can become in the future. “Our charges are to grow healthy food, educate and preserve the legacy of generosity,” she says. “It’s a holistic management approach and all the pieces need to interact.” Gordon focuses on vegetable production, education and volunteer groups while Hamilton is in charge of the animals and pastures. Hundreds of volunteers and docents also get credit for the farm’s efficiency.

Since PPCF took over, several programs have been developed to nurture the goals of the farm. The highest demand comes from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in which consumers “subscribe” to a stake of the harvest at the farm - but they also share in the risk. “It’s a direct relationship between the consumer and the farmer,” Gordon says. “They know where their food is coming from, they are supporting local farming and they are exposed to vegetables they might not buy at the store.” The program extends for 19 weeks from June to October and costs under $600 for the season. Subscriptions are limited and they sell out each year.

Venetucci-grown produce is also available at the Farmer’s Market at Ivywild School on Wednesdays and The Margarita at Pinecreek on Saturdays. In addition, a stand is also open at the Venetucci Farm itself on Saturdays.

Another opportunity to experience farm grown food involves the Starlight Dining series, where local chefs prepare a sumptuous meal centered on ingredients picked fresh that day. Guests also receive a tour of the farm. Seating is limited and the dinners wrap up in the early fall.

Gordon believes exposing children to the farm to table concept is a lasting experience. Therefore, one of the most important programs the farm offers is Farm to Fork: Cooking with Kids. Available to 5th through 8th graders, students come to the farm each morning for a week and work with a local chef. They learn about growing the food, focusing on one special ingredient each day, while also discussing healthy eating habits. The morning culminates with the children helping to prepare their own lunch with ingredients from the farm. For younger children, there are programs that focus on caring for the farm animals and learning how to be a farmhand.

Perhaps the largest undertaking since the PPCF took over has been to erect a new barn. “The barn is the heart of the farm. Nick’s barn was deteriorating and was finally taken down,” Gordon says. “Besides some small out buildings, we didn’t have a large space for anything - and for a community farm that left a real hole.”

In 2013, the PPCF began a campaign to raise the funds necessary to build a barn. It is up and functional now and once complete will not only provide shelter for animals and equipment but also allow for a large gathering place for community meetings and educational experiences. In addition, the barn will eventually be fitted with a large deck that will be the new “dining room” for the Starlight Dining series. And Gordon wishes for a true commercial kitchen to be installed one day, which will play in to her holistic approach. “An event that involves food should be wholly harvested and prepared at Venetucci,” she says. “People should be able to taste the farm, not just experience it.”

And yes, the legacy of the Pumpkin Man continues, although on a much smaller scale. Gordon says the pumpkin patch is a fraction of what it was in Nick’s day but they still see between 6,000 and 10,000 schoolchildren each year. There are, however, some differences. “My understanding is kids would get off the bus and go pick their pumpkin and get back on the bus and leave,” Gordon says. “Now we have educational stations where they learn about raising chickens, composting, bean shelling and bees. It’s all about making the connection from water to soil to growing the food.”

“When someone sits down for a meal, I want them to think about what’s on their plate, where it came from and how it was grown,” Gordon says. “That’s the legacy I hope Venetucci Farm leaves behind.”