The seeds of a good idea can branch out in many directions.
Just ask Miro Kummel, visiting assistant professor in environmental science, and Michael Hannigan ’75, executive director of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF).
The two are working together with alumni and current students to make possible a “farm within a farm”: CC’s use of three acres at Venetucci Farm, a 200-acre working farm about 10 miles south of Colorado Springs. Both envision the farm as a place for CC students to pursue academic study and research, engage in community outreach, and put classroom lessons to practical use.
Jon Piana ’07 was interested in developing a liberal arts major in agroecology, and spoke to Kummel about the possibilities. Kummel, on the CC end, and Hannigan, at PPCF, had also talked about the possibilities of a CC-Venetucci venture. “Miro said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if CC had three acres and some water,’ ” Hannigan recalls. “We started to talk it through and decided to test the concept.”
“A big goal of the farm is to use it for educational purposes,” says Hannigan, who has a unique perspective on Colorado College, having been a CC student, former faculty member (geology department), and administrator (director of development). “For CC to be working and using the land is a logical extension of CC’s educational programs.”
Thus, the seed of an idea germinated.
Testing the concept took the form of a Farm Feasibility Research project, conducted this summer by four CC students — Lissa Crocker ’08, Austin Smith ’09, Molly Dilg ’08, and Tori Ulrich ’09. The aim of the study was “to design and create an exceptionally varied three-acre farm” with many far-ranging goals. The feasibility study included two parts: hands-on farm work, and research and planning. With the help of a venture grant that funded supplies and travel to regional organic farms, and a Donner Fund at Pikes Peak Community Foundation grant for intern salaries, the students went to work.
The students spent May through August at the farm researching the possibility of operating a sustainable agricultural farm, and enduring a summer of uncooperative weather. The students dug in, however, and by the end of the summer had transformed their acreage. On it they had grown rows of sunflowers, various squashes, beans, corn, cutting flowers, and the famed Venetucci Farm pumpkins.
They worked six hours each day on a 2.5-acre market garden, a .25-acre children’s garden, irrigation, harvesting, staffing a farmer’s market operation, and animal husbandry of pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys, and horses. They kept detailed farm journals on techniques and challenges of hands-on farming. The remaining two hours of each day were spent networking and researching. As a part of their internships, they read books and articles together, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan; “The Farm as a Natural Habitat” by Nina L. Bradley, Dana L. Jackson, and Laura L. Jackson; and “The Oil We Eat,” a Harper’s Magazine article by Richard Manning. In addition, they visited area organic farms.
One of the students’ goals was to develop an educational resource for school-age children, so they created a variety of specialty gardens. Among them are a rainbow garden, planted in the shape and with colors of a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet); a tactile garden, with plants ranging from lamb’s ear, which feels just like its name, to cactus; an herb garden, a pizza garden, featuring ingredients for pizza, and a “stinky breath” garden, with plants such as garlic and chives. Another feature is a “sunflower house,” a series of small rooms formed by enormous sunflowers.
The students also wanted the farm to be as organic and sustainable as possible. They preferred to use horses and humans to plow and weed, as opposed to machinery that uses fossil fuels; drip tape to irrigate; and as much compost as required.
Marian Pierce ’07, a member of the CC Farm Committee, worked with Kummel to integrate the farm into the academic curricula at CC in ways that enhance the liberal arts spirit of the school. Already, 42 students in Kummel’s Agroecology and Ecology of Sustainable Agriculture classes have carried out laboratory and independent projects at the farm.
Among the projects so far: soil studies to research nutrient cycling; an examination of the potential for generating methane from animal waste; a study into the composition of plant communities in response to grazing; research of plant diseases and pests; and a study of light and temperature distribution through canopies including those created by corn, beans, and squash. In addition, Tass Kelso, a biology professor, has conducted an assessment of the Fountain Creek area of the farm with her students.
One of the farm’s goals is outreach to the community, and Pierce, a sociology major, is conducting an independent study of the sociology of conviviality. She plans to construct a cob oven, measuring about four feet by four feet with a domed top, in the spring. “I think the experience of building the oven will go beyond whatever the oven itself provides,” Pierce says. “There is a creation of new values when working together.” The oven will be large enough to bake several pizzas or loaves of bread. Pierce envisions schoolchildren making the bread on the farm, baking it, then sitting around the large cob oven and eating the fruits of their labor.
The interns received a second venture grant that enabled them to present their project at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference at Arizona State University in October.
“That was an incredible experience, and it was wonderful that CC was represented there,” says Austin Smith ’09. “And it was an important thing for us to do, presenting, networking, and developing relationships with other students working in this area.”
The interns are now finalizing the feasibility report, which will address the financial security of the project and how it will be integrated into Colorado College. They’ve compared CC with other liberal arts colleges that have farms — including Middlebury College, Oberlin College, and Evergreen State College — in terms of academics, student life, and community outreach.
The early word? “They have concluded that the farm would be beneficial to the college,” Kummel says.
Smith says the potential is huge for the college, the community, and the future, as well.
“The CC Farm is a model of how people can understand their setting. … It’s an example of how the farm could be.”
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Lissa Crocker ’08, an anthropology and Southwest studies major from Bronx, N.Y., coordinated the excess crops donation and volunteer aspects of the farm.
“What I did was figure out what to do with 500 pounds of surplus zucchini and bolted lettuce that we couldn’t sell at the farmers’ markets,” she said. The zucchini was donated to a local soup kitchen; much of the lettuce was turned to compost.
Crocker also coordinated community members and organizations such as Brownie troops who wanted to volunteer; now she coordinates the many CC students interested in working at the farm. The volunteers picked and loaded the pumpkins that are a hallmark of the Venetucci Farm; Crocker estimates they grew and harvested 20,000 pumpkins this year.
Molly Dilg ’08, a psychology major from Los Angeles who is interested in pursuing a career in education, integrated the farm project with other on-campus entities.
Through her work, the farm was used by residential life staff; summer camps and conferences; CCLIM, an outdoor education student organization; sororities and others. She involved the farm project in this year’s Food Chained lecture series and a film presentation of “The Future of Food.” Dilg also helped organize the October Blue and Green Grass Festival fundraiser, which included a concert by the bluegrass band Open Road; hayrides on a wagon pulled by draft horses; organic, hormone-free beef provided by the Carnivore Club; and information about the farm.
Austin Smith ’09, of Mission Hills, Kansas, researched sustainable agriculture practices including crop rotation, beneficial insects, polyculture, etc. Smith, a likely biology major with emphasis in botany, also conducted the first independent student research at the farm, with his project, “Oyster Mushroom Cultivation from Sterile Straw.”
Smith says the interns’ visits to area organic farms were meaningful both for the interns and the farmers, who see validation in a CC sustainable farming program. “They’re really excited; they see Colorado College as a prestigious program and inventive institution. They haven’t gotten the respect they deserve, and I think they’re very impressed, excited to see CC taking a step in the right direction.”
Tori Ulrich ’09, a history and Spanish major from Marin County, Calif., worked on many of the financial and grant-writing aspects of the CC farm.
Ulrich wrote a preliminary proposal seeking $20,000 for supplies ranging from seeds to solar panels from The Colorado Garden Show. The organization expressed interest, so Ulrich wrote a full-fledged proposal, which was submitted in late October.
Ulrich, who has worked on small, family-owned farms in the past, says she learned a lot about the bureaucratic set-up of farming. “There are certain protocols, certain reviews that need to be passed. It really opened my eyes to another side — the financial side — of farming,” she says.