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Hidden Valley farm makes good use of Maricopa's old pumpkins

HIDDEN VALLEY — The goats and chickens on Jennifer and Michael Connelly’s Hidden Valley farm were well fed last week on a diet of Maricopa’s old pumpkins.

6th Day Farms put out a Facebook post offering to take Halloween pumpkins, and were overjoyed — though a little overwhelmed — with the response from the community.

“I just thought, all of these people are throwing these pumpkins in the trash and they’re going in the landfill,” Jennifer said. “My animals would love this and maybe we can help each other.”

Jennifer made the post and went to bed, but by the next morning, Michael was waking her up with the news that the post was garnering far more attention than they had thought it would.

“He’s like, ‘There’s a whole bunch of messages and I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know how you’re going to pick up all these pumpkins,’” Jennifer said.

That’s when Copa Craze stepped in. With help from the owner, Danyle Nguyen, the Connellys were able to set up a drop-off point for the pumpkins. Between the two of them, they trucked loads of pumpkins into their property. Everything that wasn’t eaten by the lucky farm animals went to the farm’s compost pile to be reused for fertilizer and other uses.

“I’m so grateful,” Jennifer said. “Because of the incredible outreach of the community, next year I want to plan something maybe at the farm, maybe a day or two after Halloween, so people can come and pet the animals and meet us and just see what we do and maybe feed the animals a couple pumpkins themselves.”

With 25 adult chickens pecking their way around the property, two ducks, two dogs, two cats and six goats — soon to be 10 with the arrival of two sets of twins — the Connellys have their hands full.

“There’s 34 chickens in the living room,” Jennifer said, laughing. “And two human kids. They’re part of the zoo too.”

She does indeed have 34 chicks in her living room, under a heat lamp as winter descends on the farm.

This isn’t the couple’s first rodeo when it comes to farming. They met when they were just 13 in Illinois, where Michael helped out at his dad’s cattle ranch, eventually leaving school as a freshman to work there full time.

Jennifer’s friend had introduced them and, as Michael puts it, their friend said, “You gotta meet this dorky kid.”

The two were close friends until high school, when something sparked.

“If you had told me then that we’d be married for 12 years now, have two kids, I would have laughed,” she said smiling.

Married at just 19, they do most things together. They help run the Maricopa Pantry nonprofit organization and are involved in Mountain View Community Church — Michael as a deacon and Jennifer as a Sunday school teacher. They even share a birthday, Oct. 30.

So when they shared the dream of having their very own farm, one where their two daughters Molly and Aurora could run around freely, they knew they could put their plan into action.

Michael went back to school for his GED, and both attended college before moving to the area eight years ago. Life has moved quickly for the young family since then. They’d been renting in the Hidden Valley area in hopes of finding the perfect property to start their farm.

“We just prayed a lot and we were like, ‘Where do you want us?’” Jennifer said. “I promise you the moment we pulled up in the driveway, when our Realtor had us come look at the house, we saw that mountain and I’m like, ‘This is it. God is telling us this is it.’”

They moved into their home in May 2018 and were able to start selling their chickens' eggs last month. Framed in their kitchen is a $10 bill, marked “Oct. 11, First Sale.”

It wasn’t easy getting started, however. Over the summer the family left for vacation and came back to find their chicken coupe open and 28 chickens gone, along with a turkey. The predator wasn’t spotted by the pet sitter, and the chickens were unfortunately lost. But it’s back to business for the Connellys, who have several fenced-in pens for their animals.

They already have a long list of people wanting the farm’s homegrown eggs, but Jennifer and Michael have bigger dreams for their little farm than just egg sales, including a future store, canning classes and a garden.

“We have a lot of really big plans. I mean, first of all, it was just our ‘farm come true.’ That’s what I call it,” Jennifer said. “How can we expound upon this and make it something we can bless other people with? Not just like a petting zoo or not just something that we do, but how can we bring food bank, community, other businesses (together) and just spread this blessing. Because I feel like God has given us this for a purpose that’s bigger than us.”

But for now, they’re happy living out their dream on their homestead and personal farm, homeschooling their two little girls, attending church and giving back to the community.

You can find their Instagram page at @6thdayfarms and Facebook page at 6th Day Farms.

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Maricopa family overcomes 'storm of life' to open Monsoon Coffee

MARICOPA — There’s a monsoon brewing in Maricopa, and the result is good coffee.

Monsoon Coffee opened their food trailer this week to thirsty patrons for the first time. Dave Verlennich is the brains behind the business — a self-described coffee connoisseur.

The coffee shop may be brand new, but Dave has been cultivating this idea for decades.

He began his love affair with the caffeinated drink in the 1990s, roasting his own beans as a hobby at home in Minnesota. The hobby grew to the point where customers at his concrete business were asking him to fork over the beans. He and Mike Verlennich, his brother and business partner, were thrilled to share their unique coffee with customers.

Verlennich then took an impromptu trip from Minnesota to Maricopa to deliver a vehicle to his parents, who own a home here. It was then that he stopped to look around, and realized what he’d stumbled upon.

“I called my wife and I said, ‘You know honey, I could live here.’ And she’s like, ‘No, you’re crazy, it’s hot there.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s really not. I mean, it’s really nice,’” Verlennich said. “Yeah, June of 2013 was probably the most mild summer that I’ve experienced.” He joked.

Once he moved his kids and wife Lori out here, he never looked back. His brother, meanwhile, had made the move to Boise, Idaho and became a pastor at Vector Church. He decided to set up a coffee shop inside the church to cater to the congregation.

It was then that it occurred to Dave that he might want to try his hand in the coffee business himself. His brother and family helped him begin the search for a suitable trailer to turn into his mobile operation. The first trailer they found was sold to another buyer, so they resumed the search this year. When they finally found and purchased the trailer in May, it seemed like things were finally coming together for their tentative September opening.

Then in June, Lori was diagnosed with cancer. At first, doctors thought it was a simple blood clot, but then they found a growth in her stomach.

The family reeled.

Dave met Lori when they both worked in the fast food industry, and were married 33 years ago. They homeschooled all their children, three boys and one girl. Their eldest son Brett is 27, then Luke, 22; Gunnar, 19; and Arika, their youngest daughter, is turning 12 later this month.

As Lori battled her cancer, she helped Dave push on with the plan, creating menus and officially christening it Monsoon Coffee.

“We really wanted something to be a part of Arizona,” Dave said. “We are from Minnesota and we tried to combine Minnesota (and) Arizona. We made this our home, and so we were trying to think of something that Arizona is known for.”

They settled on Monsoon Coffee, as it illustrated the storms of life and the changing of seasons so well. They thought they might try for an early opening Aug. 1, but it wasn’t meant to be.

On Aug. 25, Lori died unexpectedly of pneumonia. Her immune system, weakened by chemotherapy, was unable to fight off the infection.

“She was the do-er in the house,” Dave said, tearing up. “Everything in our house was cleaned spotless all the time. The kids had their chores that they did, but she literally directed and ran the household every single day. One of the most challenging things for me is she paid every single bill in the house. I didn’t even know what bills were due and when. Call me ignorant, but she just took care of everything.”

Cancer struck the Verlennich family like a sucker punch to the gut.

“This caught us so off guard,” Dave said. “Honestly, I would tell you from the bottom of my heart, that everybody that knows us and everybody around us 100% believed that we were just going to walk through this like many, many others do and we were just going to keep going on with our life. We are keeping on with our life, but it sure isn’t the same.”

And keeping on meant the opening of Monsoon Coffee, the dream that had brought the family together and united them in the face of hardship. Gunnar works as a barista, Brett helps with social media, Luke works in Phoenix and comes home to help whenever he can and even Arika helps out in the trailer.

“We had decided right when she got sick that we were going to do this as a family business and we’re going to involve the kids in it, and that’s what we were going to do. It was going to be fun,” Dave said. “We’ve been having fun over the last week doing what we do. We’ve been meeting different people in the community and they’re enjoying it. They’re telling us how much they love it.”

Dave explained that his trailer was a way to create a different kind of coffee experience for Maricopans, who already have a lot of commercial and brick-and-mortar options to choose from for a cup of joe.

“We wanted to give you a high-end, specialty coffee served in — not a commercial environment — but in a friendly atmosphere and something that would really appease a lot of people. People want this, they want good coffee,” Dave said. “There’s several coffee shops in town, but we’re not competing with them. We’re in a different space and we do something different.”

The trailer serves all the classic favorites for coffee lovers including drip coffee, espresso, lattes and flavorings. But they also have their own unique beverages for customers to choose from for their morning caffeine fix. Their “Monsoon” drink, aptly named for the business, is an espresso over ice with a twist of lime and non-alcoholic tonic. Dave likens it to an Arnold Palmer.

“It’s very unique,” Dave said. “It’s not a love-hate thing. It’s you drink it and you go, ‘Wow, that is very interesting.’ And it makes you want to drink more.”

Another signature drink on the menu is the “Desert Bloom,” a coffee infused with lavender and honey made from bees that exclusively pollinate coffee flowers, giving the honey a coffee-like flavor.

Dave has thought these drinks through down to the bean itself. They source their beans from Onyx Coffee Lab, a company based in Arkansas that has won awards for their roasts and maintains a pledge to source their beans ethically.

“I think coffee should taste like coffee. You should get the flavor notes that are in a coffee,” Dave said. “Every coffee that there is — whether it’s from Ethiopia, or if it’s from Tanzania, if it’s from Guatemala, Mexico — they all have different flavor profiles based on the elevation in which they’re grown at (and) the types of coffees that they are.”

The business started serving up hot drinks the same day they received their permits, Oct. 31, handing out 150 cups of hot chocolate in under an hour for the residents of Cobblestone neighborhood out trick-or-treating that evening.

“We have had what I would call an amazing response,” Dave said. “We have had multiple repeat customers in just a couple of locations that we have went. They came back several times just in the week that we’ve been here to try some different things.”

Dave opened this coffee shop in the thick of healing for his family, and it has already become an important part of their lives.

“Our story is our story,” Dave said. “It’s about family, community and coffee. That order, I suppose, changes. We’re really about the coffee. We’re about the community. And we’re about our family. Our family is really an important thing. It always has been and we want it to continue that way.”

They keep their coffee fans up to date on their times and locations on their instagram page, @MonsooncoffeeAZ and on Facebook at Monsoon Coffee.

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MUSD superintendent concedes defeat of bond measure

MARICOPA — The Maricopa Unified School District has officially conceded defeat on Proposition 437, a bond measure that would have granted the district $68 million to build a new high school, among other improvements.

With 2,971 “yes” votes and 3,921 “no” votes at time of publication, the bond failed to pass, an approval rate of only 43.1%. This accounts for all ballots, though results are not official until they are certified by the Pinal County Board of Supervisors.

MUSD Superintendent Tracey Lopeman made a statement Wednesday thanking supporters of the bill.

“Although Maricopa Unified School District’s bond was defeated, we appreciate our community who supported the measure,” Lopeman wrote.

She went on to state her concerns regarding the school district’s funding, and the effect a lack of funding will have on a growing population of students.

“Knowing that the state of Arizona does not provide adequate funding for districts to build new facilities or maintain existing facilities, districts throughout the state must rely on local community support to help provide funding to build much-needed facilities, add safety upgrades, purchase school buses and address lifecycle projects,” she wrote. “Our primary concern is the students of Maricopa. Our needs have not changed, our students deserve to attend school in state-of-the-art educational facilities with great teachers.”

As the bonds failed to pass, MUSD will need to address the overcrowding of Maricopa High School with some of the $26 million allocated by the School Facilities Board. The district can do this by building a scaled-down version of the original comprehensive high school plans. As for the other expenses, those will also have to be factored into the already-tight budget — or be left off entirely — in order to prioritize the needs of the students of MUSD.

Lopeman ended her statement with a call to action to the community.

“We envision a vibrant future for the city of Maricopa,” she wrote. “Maricopa Unified School District has an important role in educating the workforce for a city that is on the rise. Our students deserve the support of the community and we will continue to seek the resources necessary to provide a first-class education.”

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Maricopa celebrates Veterans Day throughout the weekend

MARICOPA — Saturday marked the third annual Maricopa Veterans Day celebration, led by a 5K run/1-mile walk at 6:30 am and followed by a pancake breakfast, a parade, and an honorary luncheon.

The morning began with the 5K run/1-mile walk at Pacana Park, where “participants ranged in age from 6 to 60, with the youngest runner finishing the 5K in just under an hour,” said Henry Turner, founder of Maricopa Memorial Events, Inc. and longtime fitness instructor at Copper Sky. Turner’s father was a Korean War veteran and his brother is an Iraq War veteran.

Andrea Jackson and Steve Campbell were winners of the 5K race.

Maricopa Memorial Events also sponsored a post-run pancake breakfast with food donated by Shamrock Farms in Stanfield and Walmart. Helen’s Kitchen provided the food truck for access to the potable water necessary to put on the breakfast.

The proceeds of the run/walk and breakfast will be split between several agencies in Maricopa, according to Turner.

Fundraising for the entire event came from Letters for Soldiers, Maricopa Veterans Center, the Maricopa VFW, and the Maricopa American Legion, which marked its 100th anniversary since its founding on Veterans Day.

The run/walk was preceded by the traditional raising-of-the-flag ceremony. The raising of the flag on Veterans Day became a tradition long ago, commemorating Lt. Presley O’Bannon and his Marines hoisting the American flag on the second harbor overtaken by American forces in Tripoli, Libya in 1803.

“We really appreciate the city working with us to put in a flag pole at Pacana Park in time for this event,” Turner said.

Hours later, a slow line of vintage cars led the Veterans Day parade.

An array of makes and models, including an antique Volkswagen Beetle, an antique custom dune buggy, a 1964 Chevy Impala and a reddish Mercedes SLK, rolled by the corner of Leading Edge Academy as onlookers sat on curbs corners and stood along the streets.

Parade vehicles were filled with veterans from many wars, including the Korean War and World War II. Patriotic organizations drove vehicles carrying members and red (Marines), white (Army) and blue (Navy) flags flapping in a light wind.

Celebrating the 100th year of the American Legion, the largest veterans’ service organization in the country, members carried a banner. Maricopa’s bagpiper Dave Mundy drove with the American Legion Auxiliary honoring POW-MIA vets

Veterans Day weekend in Maricopa

Mayor Christian Price spoke, noting that Veterans Day is the only annual parade in Maricopa.

During an honorary luncheon, Councilwoman Julia Gusse led a POW-MIA empty table commemoration. She said the small table represented the loneliness felt by POW-MIA soldiers and the single rose in a vase stood for the family and friends waiting for their return.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines were represented at the event with a veteran from each branch of the service saluting as Jiselle Diaz sang her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the luncheon following the parade.

Ak-Chin Chairman Robert Miguel announced a free movie and dinner for veterans at either Harrah’s Buffet or Ultrastar Multitainment Center all day on Veterans Day.

Miguel shared memories of meeting Pat Tillman, a football player for the Arizona Cardinals who left the National Football League to serve his country in the military after 9/11.

“I still remember Pat Tillman’s strong expressions of love for his country and his great desire to serve,” Miguel said.

On Sunday, the festivities continued with the Maricopa Motor March for Veterans. Vintage vehicles were joined by women in pinup dresses celebrating those that went to war and those who supported them from the homeland.

The procession made its way from Milar Air Park down State Route 347 to the Bashas parking lot, where people of all ages were able to get a close look at some of the old vehicles.

Veterans seeking free PTSD wellness services are encouraged to contact maricopaveteranscarecenter.com. The group also offers job training and housing services.