The Crestone Eagle, October 2002:
Ernie New’s White Mountain Farm –a truly organic experience
by Matie Belle Lakish
Second graders tumble from the bus, eager to set their feet in Ernie New’s organic soil and see where vegetables really come from. Surprisingly, even Sangre de Cristo students don’t all know that potatoes grow under ground. In this age of supermarket food, Ernie feels a responsibility to help people stay healthy and connected to the earth through quality organic food that they pick themselves, So he makes time in his busy schedule for the children, and for me.
White Mountain Farm is part of a growing movement for Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA’s, that allow people to have the luxury of really fresh produce without the land or time invested in growing it themselves. By contributing $150 for a couple, or $200 for a nuclear family, patrons can pick all the produce they can use or preserve at the peak of freshness. As a bonus, they and their children will know where food really comes from. And this is part of Ernie’s goal.
Growing up on a ranch in the 40’s and 50’s, Ernie remembers how good the pasture-fed beef tasted. After he got his degree from CSU and moved to Jefferson County to teach Industrial Arts to high school students, he wondered why the food they bought was so tasteless. His wife, Virginia, had grown up near Mosca, and in the 70’s the New family moved to the farm of her parents, Virgil and Alice Stahl. While chemical farming was taking over the nation and the Valley, the Stahl’s has resisted and continued to raise their crops chemical free.
Ernie intended to help his in-laws and learn to farm, but Virgil’s unexpected death left Ernie without a mentor, and the division of the farm among the heirs, combined with the economic downturn of the early ’80’s meant they lost the farm and had to buy it back from the FHA. During those lean times Ernie went to work as a mechanic at the Pit Stop in Mosca, which he later bought.
But serendipity was at work, and while the farm was lying fallow, Ernie was approached by Dave Cusack, who was looking for 80 acres of chemical-free land to grow quinoa (keen-wa), a highly nutritious grain-like seed which was the staple food of the Inca empire. Cusack brought a Bolivian native to tend the crop, and Ernie watched, that drought year, as the crop grew knee high without irrigation. Regrettably, Dave Cusack was killed in Bolivia that summer, but fortunately his partner, John McCamant, a CSU professor, was interested in pursuing the project, and together they formed the non-profit research organization, Sierra Blanca, to experiment with quinoa and native potatoes.
Today, using the results of McCamant’s research, his own ingenuity, his son Paul’s managerial skills, and the help of other family members, White Mountain Farm has become a vibrant farm of 1045 acres which, God willing, will be paid off in two years. Ernie says, “It’s been lean—sometimes really lean—but it’s been worth it.”
The Community Supported Agriculture is only a small part of White Mountain Farm’s operations. The vegetable gardens, which can be seen east of Highway 17 just north of Mosca, provide vegetables to 25 CSA families, as well as produce that is sold at the Alamosa Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, other farmer’s markets, and to two organic marketing co-ops. Those co-ops, which Ernie helped start, market to regional health food stores and restaurant buyer’s clubs. Locally, White Mountain Farm offers quarters or halves of pasture fed beef to individuals, and CSA members can take advantage of Ernie’s contacts to get organically grown fruit from the western slope at special member prices.
White Mountain Farm also ships organically grown potatoes and quinoa to individuals and restaurants by mail. Fine restaurants from coast to coast serve quinoa as an alternative to rice or pasta, and the colorful purple, red, and yellow fleshed potatoes offer nutrition and flavor not found in larger, commercially-bred offspring. Many individuals with chemical allergies take advantage of the New’s mail order service to have organic potatoes and quinoa shipped directly to their homes on a weekly basis.
When Ernie talks about farming, you know it is not just his business, but his passion. He has read many books on the food industry and knows how they “hook people on chemicals and fats and other harmful substances.” He maintains that if “families eat the corn, beets, and other vegetables, they’re a lot healthier.”
He points to modern practices in the beef industry that confine cattle in cramped pens and force feed them. “Feed lots are unnatural. Beef cattle’s systems are not designed for heavy grains and soybeans, and the steroids they give them.” Under a confined forced feeding system, their bodies develop Omega 6 fatty acids and saturated fats that cause heart problems for the humans who eat them. “Grown on grass, they develop the Omega 3 fatty acids” that are heart protective. “I’ve wondered about the taste,” Ernie says. “I believe it is the grass that gives beef a good flavor.”
Ernie uses the cattle as part of his crop rotation to protect and enrich the soil. That is also how he got into potatoes. He was looking for a crop that he could rotate in with his quinoa and organic alfalfa that could handle the short, cool, growing season. Potatoes were a natural, but he wanted to try the older, more flavorful varieties. The purple potatoes he found were used as row markers to separate varieties in Idaho. He has since tested 21 kinds of South American potatoes and fingerling potatoes from all over the world. The farm now grows several varieties of the small fingerlings, which make excellent potato salad, as well as Purple Peruvian, Yellow Finn, Yukon Gold, and a beet colored variety they call Deep Red.
When White Mountain Farms applied for Organic Certification in 1987, Colorado had no organic standards, so Ernie applied under Minnesota’s standards. In October, the first national organic standards will go into effect, and Ernie plans to qualify.
The New family invites those interested in the CSA to call 719-378-2436 or email email@example.com. Their website is www.whitemountainfarm.com. The garden season begins in May with rhubarb and asparagus, followed by peas and a variety of greens. August and September offer the best selection for canning and freezing, with cucumbers, squash, corn, beans, some tomatoes, onions and a variety of herbs. Winter squash, pumpkins, beets, turnips, carrots, and winter radishes are available until the ground freezes, and the famous potatoes finish out the season, usually until February. Non-CSA members can purchase potatoes, quinoa, or beef by calling or emailing.
As we climb into the pick-up and head back to the Pit Stop, I reflect on the farm tour. We have watched three-inch tilapia eat algae from the irrigation pond, and passed bees hives swarming with activity. I can’t help thinking about the advice that is often given to farmers in hard times: diversify. Ernie smiles. “I like to have something different to do almost every day,” he says.
I can relate.