published October 2019
by Matie Belle Lakish
When anyone mentions organic farms of Saguache County, Green Earth Farm is usually what comes to mind. Tom and Lillian McCracken have been leading the way since the 1980s by providing organic produce and herbal preparations grown on their farm west of Saguache. Few knew that they were also developing property that they have owned on San Isabel Creek into a thriving local mini-farm that provides produce to Elephant Cloud and other local markets. A couple of years ago, they sold the Saguache farm, downsized commercial production, and are now focusing on creating a garden paradise only a short distance from Crestone. Tom was kind enough to show me around one beautiful September weekend.
The first thing that impressed me was the driveway. No bulldozers used here. The driveway winds through and around piñons and junipers for nearly a mile before it crosses San Isabel Creek, which is one of the water sources for Tom’s gardens. When I finally pull into a parking spot, Tom greets me in his usual overalls and cap, and we start out through some young trees, ripening fruit weighing down the branches. Even in this year with late spring frosts that killed many fruit blossoms, Tom’s 70 or so fruit trees are bearing abundantly. Most trees were planted seven years ago and are now fruiting. I see apples, pears, peaches, plums—several varieties of each. But we keep moving, and Tom points out a melon patch. The melons are small, he says, but to me they look amazing, as I have tried several times to grow melons without success. Honeydews and cantaloupes sprawl across the ground, with most ranging from 4 to 6 inches in diameter. I ask about varieties, and Tom mentions Divergent cantaloupes. We pass more shrubs, and I recognize Hawthorn, a young tree with red berries that are therapeutic for one’s heart.
We continue down the gently sloping hill into a large raspberry patch. Several rows of raspberries are bearing, and Tom invites me to sample. Very sweet! Varieties are Autumn Bliss and Red Wing. Below that are the strawberries. I have seen such strawberries in the mid-west, that is, rows about 2 to 3 feet wide, with few weeds and paths in between the rows. Tom says he picked and sold many boxes of berries this year. He grows Sparkle and Honeoye, but has better luck with Sparkle. While it is easy to walk between the rows of berries, and thus easy to reach to pick them, I saw soil rather than mulch, as I have often seen in other patches. I ask Tom if he does this all himself. He says he has a helper, someone he met at one of the seed exchanges.
Another thing I notice is sprinklers. Tom has both surface water rights from San Isabel Creek and well rights. He has shallow ditches along the sides of many large beds and he can divert water into ditches like many of the bigger farms in the valley. He also has a substantial well that allows him to use sprinklers. Such water rights allow Tom to keep his plants well hydrated and thus growing consistently, and it shows in the size of his fruits.
By now we have arrived at the vegetable beds. Tom has recently dug his onions. He plants Candy, a large yellow onion, and Cabernet, a red. Most bulbs are 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and are laid out in long rows to dry in the sun. We see squash, and I recognize my favorite, Delicata, a winter-keeper variety that I have struggled to grow. Tomatoes are doing well. I see a few that are at least 6 inches in diameter. Tom points out a German Striper that is probably 8 inches. Another large one is Black Prince. I ask Tom about his seed sources, as I have seldom heard of some of the varieties he is mentioning. His favorite source is a seed company close to the Canadian border in upstate New York called St. Lawrence Nursery. Later, I see one of the catalogs, and it is easy to see why he likes it. It has an amazing variety of fruits, especially apples. Unfortunately, Tom said, the owners are retiring and the business will not continue.
Green chilis! These beauties are about 10 inches long, and Tom says Lillian really likes them. Personally, I have found them hard to produce at this altitude, but these are as large as any coming from further south.
We have now come to the part of the garden where Tom is raising vegetables to be sold locally. I inquire about markets, as I know Tom made a living from his farm and paid people to work on it for many years. He said that when he had the farm he worked hard at developing markets, operating as Grower’s Organic, and going as far north as Denver and south to Santa Fe. Since 2005 they shipped fresh produce twice a week both north and south, but now, after downsizing his operation, he sells most of his produce locally, often through Elephant Cloud market. Tom says a popular item is his greens mix, which requires sequential plantings. Favorites are Radicchio and Frisee, as well as other salad greens for the heirloom market. Tom works hard to maintain his reputation for top quality, even though the finished product may be a little more expensive than produce sold through the mass market.
All the plants are amazingly healthy, and I inquire about how he feeds his soil. He replies that they put in four truckloads of compost from Compost Technologies, a local compost operation, when they were first building the soil. Now he gives each planting a bit of kelp when planting, and occasionally some Espartan, an organic fertilizer.
I am curious about his solution to wildlife, especially since this extensive garden is in the middle of a forest. There is an 8’ woven wire fence around the perimeter, but I know from experience that bears can break down fences to get such succulent apples as his trees are producing. However, Tom says wildlife have not been a big problem. Apparently, the local bears are all busy in Crestone.
The fruit trees are bearing abundantly, and the plums and apples I taste are plump and juicy. Some are planted along his ditches, which gives them a consistent source of water. Some of the varieties are familiar, such as Reliance and Contender peaches. Others I have never heard of, such as the September Ruby and Black Oxford apples and the Hudar pear. What surprises me, however, is that many varieties I see are usually recommended for warmer climates. Tom’s gardens slope toward the southwest, which is practically ideal for maximum sunshine, and the piñons surrounding the garden give some protection from cold winter winds. By removing trees to let in more sunlight, Tom has created an ideal growing space for this climate.
After seeing the gardens, we tour the buildings. The new greenhouse has tomatoes and peppers, as well as several boxes of sunflower sprouts that will be cut and sold at Elephant Cloud. In front of the greenhouse is a large flower garden in full bloom. These, too, are for sale, for weddings and such. Gardeners usually grow food for personal use, but Tom thinks as a farmer must—what will make a profit?
We go to the new root cellar, and Tom shows me the collection of manos and pieces of metates that he has incorporated into the stucco on the outside of the structure. This site was previously used by Native Americans who left their stone tools as evidence of their presence. Did they also have gardens here? Inside, the cellar is cool and dark, ideal for storing roots and other veggies through the winter.
The last building I see has three large rooms—a work room with refrigeration and an ice machine that is used for transplanting, sorting, and packing plants for shipment. A darker room holds jars with Lillian’s tinctures and ingredients for salves. Solar panels on the slope behind the building power all their operations here. Tom says they have 24 batteries providing 2 volts each. This powers all their refrigeration equipment, including the ice maker. However, they rely on insulation to keep things cold at night.
My tour is done, and I am very grateful to Tom for taking time to show me their new place and explain how they produce so much food. I am totally impressed! I also recognize that not everything I have seen can be explained logically. There is magic going on here, as well. Some people have an instinct for communicating with plants, understanding their needs, and helping them fulfill their lives. Tom is one of those people.