UPDATE: Venetucci farmers laid off as contaminated water spoils finances

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NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein

UPDATE: We received official statements from both the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and the Gordon/Hamilton family regarding the latter's termination as managers of Venetucci Farm. Since they're written as public letters, we'll post them in their entirety below.

Here's the statement from the foundation:

Dear Friends of Venetucci Farm,

This past year has been an uncertain period for Venetucci Farm, but it is not without its successes. The PFC contamination that affects the Widefield Aquifer continues to challenge the farm’s operations. In 2017, we focused our efforts on the pumpkin giveaway and the farm’s education programs. Thanks to Susan, Patrick, and David, the farm hosted hundreds of school children and provided more than 10,000 pumpkins to the community.


As many of you know, the farm’s principle revenue source is a water rights lease with the Security and Widefield water districts. The administrators at these districts face a herculean task to provide safe drinking water for their communities. The Venetucci wells are part of the Widefield Aquifer, and it’s not clear that the water districts can use our water without treating it for consumption. For this reason, Security and Widefield asked to suspend payment of the water rights until a sufficient filtration system can be implemented for the wells.


Learning recently of this new information, we concluded that there are two options: We can challenge the suspended payment and consume resources that would otherwise be deployed to solve the community’s water problem, or we can join forces with the water districts. We recognize that the community’s priority is safe drinking water. We chose to be good and responsible neighbors by opting to come together with the districts.


We’ve agreed to an abeyance agreement that essentially suspends any payment or challenge until we have clarity on how to remediate the water contamination crisis.


There are consequences to this decision. Without our main revenue source, we must scale back our operations on the farm. We had to eliminate Susan, Patrick and David’s positions, and reduce our operations to a caretaking role. We are working on a management plan for the farm for this year, and beyond. We offered the opportunity to Susan and Patrick to stay on the farm as caretakers until the end of June to allow for a smooth transition.


One uncertainty we face is how long it will take for the wells to become operational. This reality has pushed us to work with community leaders to find other revenue sources for the farm. Our belief is that there are opportunities for a vibrant Venetucci in the future. We are pursuing them.


Once we have a better understanding of our options, I will be in communication with you all.

In the meantime, I want to recognize the diligent work of Susan, Patrick and David. They have been shepherds of the Venetucci legacy; they have fed, educated, and cared for our community. We also have great respect for Roy Heald and Steve Wilson, the managers of the Security and Widefield water districts. They are faced with a complex task to provide safe drinking water in a true crisis.


If you have questions about the farm’s future, please feel free to contact Sam Clark at PPCF: sclark@ppcf.org or 719.445.0605.


Sincerely,

Gary Butterworth

Chief Executive Officer

And here's the statement from Susan Gordon:


Public Statement re: the Termination of my employment with PPCF


Patrick, Sarah, Clare, and I were disappointed and saddened to abruptly receive the news that we would be forced to leave Venetucci Farm, which has been our home, work, and community for the past eleven years. Honored to be tasked with preserving the Venetucci legacy, we worked tirelessly to restore the farm to health and increase its financial, ecological, and social resiliency. Produce and pumpkin sales, educational programs, and events provided diverse revenue sources and opportunities for the community to engage with the farm. Using the farm as a classroom, our educational coordinator, David Rudin, engaged thousands of school children in the natural world. We couldn’t have done any of this without the many hands and hearts that helped us along the way.


It is unfortunate that the recent water contamination by the Air Force and the subsequent decisions have resulted in an uncertain future for the farm. Losing a productive farm that provides opportunity for people to connect with the land and each other is not something our community or our world can afford. While the loss of the water lease money presents a formidable challenge, it does not preclude the farm from operating as it historically did, supporting itself through diverse income streams.


Eleven years ago as we walked the farm with Bambi Venetucci, we were acutely aware of the responsibility we faced to care for the land and preserve it as a working farm. Nick and Bambi Venetucci provided an incredible gift to this community and we were honored to have been the farmers here for the past decade. We hope that our affection for and care of Venetucci Farm has honored that gift, and that those now responsible for the future of the farm will make decisions that continue to do so.


Susan Gordon



—— ORIGINAL POST: 4:51 P.M. DEC, 7, 2017 ——


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 working farm — farm managers Susan Gordon and Patrick Hamilton have been laid off. Production is on indefinite hold. 


Venetucci's problems began in May 2016, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering the level of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) considered safe for human consumption. Soon after, the groundwater under Venetucci tested above that level, prompting the farm’s longtime trustee, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF), to suspend produce sales mid-season.


Quite new in his role at the time, PPCF CEO Gary Butterworth tried to exercise an abundance of caution in the decision to stop all sales, though many loyal customers felt denied the chance to make their own judgement. (Colorado’s Chief Epidemiologist Mike Van Dyke has since found that eating Venetucci's produce, even with the highest possible PFC uptake levels, likely isn’t dangerous.)


Meanwhile, the foundation underwent some reorganization: staff were laid off; headquarters relocated; and the fiscal sponsorship program ended. Butterworth also indicated a desire to move away from land ownership. He ordered an advisory committee to seek potential plans for offloading Venetucci in a way that honored the intent of its donors, Nick and Bambi Venetucci.


Production was kept on hold through the 2017 growing season. There were murmurings that Colorado College would take ownership of the land. Those negotiations have since stalled, a CC official confirms.


Now, the municipal well on the land, located off US-85 in Security, will no longer support Venetucci’s operations as it has for over a decade. 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 leased to nearby Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD), Widefield Water and Sanitation District and Fountain Water District, fetching about $250,000 a year. That revenue accounts for most of the farm’s annual operating budget.

Or, it used to.

This week, the water districts entered into an abeyance, meaning they’ve moved to suspend the lease since they can’t serve contaminated water to their customers. 

Butterworth confirmed the news, emphasizing it’s for the “greater good” of the wider Security, Widefield and Fountain communities, of which Venetucci Farm is a part.



Gordon, having just been notified that the foundation is terminating her employment, 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 Thursday. “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. … Yeah, I’m worried about the future.”


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