fyi: the venetucci farm is less than one mile from my house. Everyone here has wonderful childhood memories of the Venetuccis and their generosity - not just this little community here, but everyone who grew up in the whole city.
July 10, 2005
By DAVE PHILIPPS THE GAZETTE
Toward the end, developers would call Nick and Bambi Venetucci regularly, trying to persuade them to sell their 190-acre farm and its water rights.
“Golf courses, strip malls, condos. Those guys wanted to build all kinds of crap here,” said Mac Mackenzie, 80, who worked the farm in Security for decades.
Many people who loved the farm feared the Venetuccis, who had no heirs, would sell. The couple stopped planting pumpkins in 2002. After Nick died in September 2004 at age 93, it seemed like selling was only a matter of time.
But the farm isn’t for sale. The pumpkins are coming back.
To the couple who invited thousands of local children to their farm every fall, the acreage wasn’t mere land to be bought and sold. It was a legacy they hoped could be carried on somehow, by someone.
In 2003, with characteristic humility, the couple that always shied away from public thankyous and awards quietly called the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and arranged for the local philanthropic organization to take control of the farm. Eventually, the land will be placed in a conservation easement, planting the seeds that ensure the farm will be around forever.
This spring, the foundation’s caretaker sowed pumpkins and corn so Nick and Bambi Venetucci’s legacy could sprout again.
“I have total faith and trust in what they’re doing,” said Bambi Venetucci, 76.
The Venetuccis, both lifelong Catholics, also gave 35 acres to the Diocese of Colorado Springs.
Protecting the farm was an unusual move in sprawling Colorado Springs, which often acts as its own Vesuvius, willingly burying the region’s heritage in sudden eruptions of housing and retail space.
But Nick and Bambi Venetucci had sacrificed too much to see their spread wither. Both grew up the children of Italian immigrant coal miners.
Nick’s parents, Nicholas and Marguerita Venetucci, eventually scraped together enough money for a small farm near what is now Fillmore Street and Nevada Avenue. In 1936, they moved to the bigger place in Security.
To help the family, Nick gave up a promising career as a baseball catcher to work on the farm during the Depression. He labored on that earth with his hands for almost 70 years. His father died in the fields in 1961, and Nick carried him on his back to the house.
Not long before his father died, Nick started giving away the pumpkins that would make him a household name in the region. In the 1950s, the way he told the story, he was driving a load of pumpkins down Tejon Street and just started handing them out to every kid he saw.
Later, schoolchildren started coming to his pumpkin patch. He let every child pick out a free pumpkin. He probably gave away more than a million pumpkins.
Bambi Venetucci, who is legally blind, was a teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. She married Nick in 1984 after a 27-year courtship. She would direct the lines of school buses bringing kids every October.
Bambi Venetucci - she wrote an autobiography about growing up blind out here in the 1920's and 30's.
The couple stopped planting pumpkins because of drought and Nick Venetucci’s age, but they always wanted their land to remain a working farm.
“Nick would get tears in his eyes when he even mentioned that his farm might not be around after him,” said Michael Hannigan, the foundation’s director. “That’s why he approached us. Now we want to make sure every day, in every decision we make, that we make him proud.”
LEARN FROM THE BEST
The Pikes Peak Community Foundation has never taken on such a project.
Until this winter, when Bambi Venetucci broke her hip and moved off the farm, the 9-year-old foundation had focused mainly on managing endowments and investing money for other nonprofits.
“I don’t know squat about farming,” said Hannigan, “so we had to learn from the best.”
Hannigan knew Bambi Venetucci would be the key to learning all the quirks and traditions of the farm, but first he had to find a new farmer.
He didn’t look far. The foundation’s office manager, Amy Sue Lambert, said she and her husband, Tim, who grew up on a soybean and turkey farm in Minnesota, could move in immediately.
“She didn’t even call me, she just said, ‘We’ll do it!’” Tim said with a chuckle on a recent afternoon while taking a break from planting pumpkins. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance we couldn’t pass up.”
The couple moved to the farm with their infant son, Sydney, in early April. Then Tim Lambert visited Bambi Venetucci to ask her advice. At the time, she was recovering from her broken hip in the hospital. She now lives a few miles from the farm.
How long do I irrigate? Lambert asked. What are the tricks to starting the tractors? What about handling all those kids coming for pumpkins in October?
“Don’t try to do too much in one year,” she told him. “You have plenty of time. You’ll be fine. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Tim Lambert, working on the first pumpkin patch since Nick's death.
The Venetuccis leased the farm to the foundation for 99 years. Bambi Venetucci is setting up a conservation easement for the property that will ensure its agriculture character after the lease is up.
No one can replace Nick Venetucci, Lambert is quick to say, but someone has to disk the weeds and give the seedlings water. And he doesn’t mind the idea of being the new pumpkin man. Just the mention of it spreads a warm, wide grin across his face.
Lambert graduated from Colorado College in 1992 with a degree in economics. In the late 1990s, he helped develop the first vegetable-based motor oil.
Today, his day job still involves veggiebased lubricants, as chief financial officer of Agro Management Group Inc. He works the Venetucci land in his spare time and in return lives in the old stucco farmhouse.
Drivers on U.S. Highway 85/87 can see him most afternoons walking the rows or bumping along on a tractor in a dusty white cowboy hat.
“Things are just so busy now, I’m trying to plan next week and the next 10 years,” he said.
More immediately, he has to keep the fleet of ancient tractors running. The newest one was built in 1951. On a recent visit, none would start.
“I know Nick’s up there now, laughing at me. That guy was a genius. He did so much with what he had,” Lambert said. “It’s a lot of work, I’ve already lost 20 pounds. I call it the Venetucci diet.”
This year, he planted pumpkins, sweet corn and corn for popcorn along the highway, and some clover and alfalfa to keep down the weeds in the bottom lands. Next year, he hopes to get the farm certified as organic and start a children’s garden where classes can plant vegetables and visit through the season. He also plans community gardens where locals can work in return for a share of the crops. To old-timers such as Mackenzie who have been harvesting corn and mending fences at the farm for generations, some of the organic stuff is a little odd. But he said he’s glad to see the farm preserved, and Lambert doesn’t seem like that bad of a guy.
“He’s a young farmer, he’s got a lot to learn,” Mackenzie said, “But he’ll figure it out.”
Eventually, Lambert wants to refill a few drained ponds on the property, stock them with bass and ring them with a nature trail, and possibly raise hogs again just as Nick Venetucci did years ago. The long-term goal is to make the farm self-sufficient by planting niche crops like organic edamame that Nick Venetucci probably never envisioned but bring a good price.
As the director, Hannigan has his own wish list that extends beyond the farm’s fences.
“I want kids to watch their plants grow here and maybe cook them here and learn about healthy eating. I want their kids to have the same experience, and their kids.
“I want people to meet their neighbors here. I want people to come back 100 years from now and say, ‘You know, my grandparents got married here.’
“I want this place to really make this community proud.”
CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0223 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Pikes Peak Community Foundation will hold an open house at the farm 4:30-6 p.m. Tuesday. The foundation is seeking donations of farm equipment and cash as well as volunteers. A line of farm apparel will be for sale, and officials will discuss Farm Project 400, a work weekend at the farm.
For information or to donate: www.ppcf.org or 389-1251.