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Amazing maze with a message

Colony Pumpkin Patch supports local food pantry
Katie and Dean Colony, proprietors of the Colony Pumpkin Patch, continue their support of local businesses and the community through activities and events offered at their seasonal pick-your-own pumpkin farm and corn maze. This year’s maze is designed to resemble the logo of the North Liberty Community Pantry, and part of the maze’s proceeds will be donated to the pantry. The pumpkin patch will open Sept.19, with the annual Fall Festival to be held Oct. 3. (photo by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– During the last three autumn seasons, Dean and Katie Colony, of Colony Pumpkin Patch in North Liberty, have offered a corn maze that contains dead-ends, detours, loops to be navigated and, somewhere among the stalks, routes to the exit.
Ostensibly designed for the entertainment of visitors, the themes for Colonys’ mazes are also purposefully chosen to create meaningful connections between people and the community.
In 2013, the patch’s maze was an exact replica of the North Liberty Centennial Celebration logo, in honor of the city’s 100th birthday and the town’s long agricultural history– a rich farming history that has been the Colony family’s legacy for generations.
Last year, the maze was cut to feature the national bone narrow donation program, Be The Match, to bring awareness to the need for bone marrow donors; a personal choice for sure, since Dean’s life was saved by the bone marrow transplant he received in 1996 after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 25.
This year, Colony Pumpkin Patch will support and raise awareness of the work done at the North Liberty Community Food Pantry.
The new maze configuration depicts a child’s smiling face next to a row of food items– an apple, a milk carton, a canned good and an ear of fresh corn– with the words “North Liberty Community Pantry” below.
Though the Colonys have always been aware of the pantry and its purpose, it wasn’t until Dean accompanied a Blues & BBQ delegation there to make a cash donation that he got a close-up glimpse at the ways the pantry touches lives.
“Looking around and seeing all the different people who use the pantry, (I learned) it doesn’t matter who you are, or what kind of lifestyle you lead, everyone needs some assistance at some point in their lives,” said Dean. “Our business is community-oriented, so why not support the people in the community who are here, in town with us?”
That philosophy is right in line with the pantry’s mission, “To engage our community in feeding and clothing our neighbors,” said Pantry Executive Director Tina DuBois.
“I was very excited when they brought the idea to us,” DuBois said. It was a fitting relationship between two entities with similar goals, she added. “They provide a good community activity and give kids the chance to try new things, so there is some overlap in our values.”
Katie agreed. The Colonys’ own children– Megan, Allie and Eric– help with the pumpkin patch each season, fostering a sense of responsibility to others and giving back to the community.
“The Colony family has been in North Liberty for a lot of years. One of our core values is to be involved and help the community as much as we can, whether it’s giving local businesses more exposure, or helping people who need food and clothing by letting others know that the need is there.”
Not only was the partnership a good fit with the pantry and its mission, the pantry’s educational efforts, in turn, match the Colonys’ objective to perpetuate an appreciation for agriculture and its importance.
The North Liberty Community Pantry recently used a grant, combined with financial donations, to plant a teaching garden on site where patrons learn how to raise fresh produce and incorporate it in their everyday diet.
It’s the same farm-to-table connection the Colony’s try to model.
“We thought it was a neat idea to teach people how to garden and feed themselves, so it goes along with our farming ideals,” said Dean. “We farm to feed people. The pantry uses what we always have done, and takes it to the next step by helping people learn how to feed themselves. It made sense to me.
The pantry’s new teaching garden is just one of the dozens of projects its corps of staff and volunteers have been able to accomplish after building a 2,400-square foot facility in 2012. The pantry has outgrown its location twice since 1985: first, a closet within the North Liberty First United Methodist Church; and second, an 800-square foot Morton building that lacked restrooms, shelf space and cold storage.
Today, the pantry distributes over 280,000 pounds of food and toiletries annually, holds socks and underwear distributions, hosts the North Liberty Community Library’s Pop-Up Library program where patrons can check out and return library materials, and conducts more than 60 educational activities through the course of a year, including the Handy Helpers program, in which volunteers create and demonstrate recipes based on the available pantry ingredients people may not know how to use. In addition, this is the second year for the pantry’s free farmers’ market.
Partnering with ZJ Farms, a community sustained agricultural cooperative near Solon, the pantry has been able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables weekly through three seasons; last year, an average of over two pounds of fresh produce per pantry visit was made available to users.
“We set up the produce on tables with labels, and create a safe, familiar environment for families to ask what it is and what they can do with it,” said DuBois. Some vendors at regular farmers’ markets accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards. “So our goals are to send the produce home while it’s still fresh, explain how people can use it, and get people comfortable with accessing farmers markets elsewhere.”
To help sustain the vital activities of the pantry, the Colony Pumpkin Patch opens its 2015 season on Sept. 19 and has pledged 50¢ of every full-price maze admission to the pantry. It will serve as a food drive collection site, and will include a pantry booth at the patch’s Oct. 3 Fall Festival. The maze will also contain trivia that relates back to the pantry, offering informative tidbits like the average number of pantry visitors or the amount of food it distributes annually.
The maze experience offers another opportunity to support local business owners, as well; it includes business-sponsored checkpoints that will allow visitors to learn a little about those establishments and later, actually go to those businesses to collect discounts, give-away items or special offers.
This year’s sponsors are: Blink Vision by Veatch, Grout Electric, Hills Bank, Heyn’s Ice Cream, LeReve Salon and Spa, North Liberty Leader, North Liberty Pet Clinic, Radon Elimination Services and SkyZone Cedar Rapids.
“Your community is what you make of it,” explained Dean. “If you help to better the next business down the way, it makes a stronger community for everybody. Whenever you buy local and support local businesses, your community thrives.”
Besides the maze and the pick-your-own-pumpkin service, all of the pumpkin patch activities– from the barrel train and hayrack rides to the tractor tire mountain climber, the corn-shooting cannon and more– serve the Colonys’ aim of giving families a fun and educational experience on their small farm in the heart of the city.
“Last year a friend brought some sheep in for the fall festival, and so many people had never seen sheep before. We hear a lot of people say they didn’t know the farm was here, even though it’s right in town,” said Katie. “We do what we can to connect people back to their roots, so they can touch the land and get dirty and see what it’s really like on a farm.”
DuBois sees the Colonys’ partnership as “an incredible commitment on their part,” she said, and the number of visitors who go through the maze has the potential to make a big impact for the pantry.
“I hope people gain an understanding of who we serve, what their experiences are, and the fact that those families aren’t that different from themselves,” said DuBois. “Really, most people aren’t that far away from needing help; if you have a job loss or a major medical issue, you may need assistance. Or people are working, but they are underemployed in jobs that aren’t quite enough to meet their needs, and that’s the case for a large number of people. I don’t think people always understand that.”