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Profitable organic farming at 8,000 feet

Article by Christina Nealson

Agriculture – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

You don’t sit and interview Lillian McCracken. You follow her around while she walks, waters, picks, feeds, and weeds. Rabbits, ducks, turkeys, and chickens were part of the rounds this particular morning.

“You have to have animals on a farm,” she said. “They’re part of a sustainable system. The animals provide meat, fertilizer, and certain vibrations.” Even the aphids have a place on the farm. “The non-desirables (insects) feed the beneficial. You allow them their place, too.”

Whether you agree with Lillian or not, her words command attention as you scan the acres of green, lush gardens. She and her husband Tom own, manage, and operate Green Earth Farms, Inc., 640 acres on the outskirts of Saguache. Lillian grows eighty different vegetables, 100 culinary and medicinal herbs, and twenty varieties of flowers. Tom farms 200 irrigated acres that include alfalfa, potatoes, quinoa, wheat, and green manure crops like peas and rye.

It’s all organic, right down to the dried flowers picked this day by a potter who lives in Saguache. No pesticides, no herbicides. Plus they use companion planting as they take it even further, into the realm of biodynamic agriculture (part of Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophy).

“Companion planting is the method of planting certain plants next to one another for the benefit of at least one of them,” says Lillian. One might lure insects that would be destructive to the other. Or jointly, they might contribute to each other’s health by releasing certain by-products into the soil.

Some plants, like lovage, are good companions to any plant, since they attract beneficial insects. Good combinations include carrots and peas. Dill and broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage. Lettuce and onions. Basil and tomatoes. The entire farm is planted this way. You’ll even see some pigweed grow among the potatoes.

Other organic methods include green manure: crops not harvested, but tilled into the land to replenish nutrients taken up by the previous crops. Vetch for nitrogen fixing. Rye to discourage weeds. Buckwheat to increase phosphorus.

They also rent fields to cattlemen in the winter and ask them to feed in different areas. “That way we get the benefit of uncompacted soil (because the ground is frozen), residue feed and manure.”

Crop rotation is also practiced, from gardens to fields. The same plant is never planted in the same place two years in a row. Variety discourages insects that like certain crops. Different plants pull different nutrients from the soil each year. Since perennials can’t be moved, they are fed with minerals.

This woman has come a long way since her early California Redwood days, when she ate only raw foods, did four hours of yoga a day, and ran at least ten miles. Lillian was preparing to move to Hawaii in 1979 when she met her future husband Tom, a member of a tree planting collective who lived in an alternative healing community in Arizona.

Together, they moved to the Crestone area in 1980 and in 1981 they formed Green Earth Enterprises, Inc., a forestry business in which they contracted with the U.S. government and private landowners to plant trees.

In 1987, Tom and Lillian became involved with the Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wha) Project at the Baca Ranch, a test program to introduce the “Mother Grain of the Incas” into the valley. At the time, all quinoa consumed in this country was imported from the Andes.

They tested thirty different varieties. “You should have seen it,” said Lillian, “all the different shades of mauve, apricot and peach. All did well, but some did better than others. We chose for taste and productivity.”

The McCrackens were also involved with the World Unity Garden at the Baca Ranch until they found the land in Saguache, put together a group of investors, and began to farm seven years ago.

Saguache was a long way from wet, coastal California. Lillian found herself trying to garden with only 7-10 inches of precipitation a year, where it could be hotter than blazes and then hail and snow, all on the same day. “I had a lot to learn,” she admits.

Without much support.

“When Tom and I arrived in the valley there weren’t many gardens and not much variety. Gardens were small and standard. With the high altitude and harsh climate it was like starting over. I’d come from a background of biodynamic, trench intensive agriculture in California.”

It took a while, but Tom and Lillian eventually brought organic farming to new levels in the valley, earning the respect of locals and newcomers alike.

“People said, ‘You can’t do herbs and flowers here. It won’t make money. They won’t work in this climate.’ Well, there were a couple of years when the Calendula Creme supported the farm,” Lillian says with a smile.

LILLIAN’S CALENDULA CREME, sold locally and used to nurture, moisturize, and protect the skin, contains calendula, red clover, mugwort, burdock root, chickweed, echinacia and comfrey. Recently, Lillian won Westword’s “Best of Denver” award for herbal preparations.

There aren’t any hard and fast rules when you live in the mountains, but Lillian likes to talk of the advantages of farming at 8,000 feet. There are fewer insects, for instance. And bird populations continue to grow, since the insects they eat are not poisoned.

Studies have shown that the high ultra-violet light and low humidity here concentrate the sugars so that vegetables are sweeter than those grown at lower elevations. Cool nights keep vegetables tender. And the same conditions also concentrate the essential oils contained in culinary and medicinal herbs, thereby making them more potent.

The shorter growing season also spawned a greenhouse. Inside we found Barry, a transplanted Floridian, who was basking in the heat and humidity as he tended to jungles of tomato plants. There were ponds of deep, green basil, and…chickens. In the greenhouse? “The plants like having them here,” says Lillian. “They like the vibration.”

Green Earth’s foods, herbal tonics, crepes, toners and flowers can be found all over the country. The east coast distribution is through Alberta Organic International Distribution. Rainbow Natural Foods distributes in the Southwest, while Tom delivers locally from Fort Collins to Albuquerque. (You can purchase directly from Green Earth, wholesale or retail, by calling 719-655-2655.)

Lillian claims there are no problems with rot, that fresh, biodynamic food has the longest shelf life and the highest nutrition, outlasting other foods by 3-4 times. Studies have compared non-organic, organic and biodynamic vegetables. The cells of a non-organic carrot are gray, with hardly any pattern. An organic carrot shows a mandala-like design with bright color. But an organic, companion-planted carrot boasts super-bright colors and elaborate patterns.

The consumer pays, on the average, 20% more for foods labeled organic, and higher for herbs. But those who champion organic products say that the buyer should figure in the preventative health care value of organic goods.

The recent flurry of information which connects organophosphates in the environment, and androgynous offspring of panthers in the Everglades, is enough to make some sit up take notice. Organo-phosphates come from petrochemicals introduced into the soil through fertilizers.

THE DEFINITION OF “ORGANIC” is currently under the auspices of the Colorado Organic Producers Association. Tom and Lillian were founding members of this group, that defines not only what organic growers cannot do, but also affirmative actions, like enhancing the soil through green manure, crop rotation, etc.

But they are nervous about the federal government’s recent overtures to police organics. “It takes it out of the hands of the local people,” says Lillian. “Right now organic producers in Colorado control by word of mouth. If someone pushes non-organics as organics, we know about it.”

Lillian threw a grasshopper into the chicken coop, and one black and white hen strutted away from the others with her catch. Lillian eats meat now. She began in the cold winters of Colorado because it felt intuitively right and tasted good. “You cannot eat here as if you lived in Hawaii,” she says.

Since then she has read studies which confirm that if you are of northern European ancestry, your descendants survived the Ice Age by eating meat. You need meat to survive. She refers to constitutional typing, the necessity for everyone to determine a personal diet. “Some people can get cancer from not eating meat, some get it from eating it.”

Lillian believes the best diet is the peasant diet, the simple foods, from the land you genetically descended from.

Heartbreak at Green Earth is measured by politics and hailstorms. When Lillian and Tom began the farm they did so with five other investors. But most didn’t anticipate the arduous demands of the farm, and were, therefore, gone before the first harvest.

By the beginning of the second season, only Lillian, Tom, and one other investor, Paramananda, remained. Paramananda continued daily work for four years, and still offers support when she can.

As for the heartbreak of hail, Lillian recalls a mother of all storms, three years ago, that flattened and tore every plant.

“We made a ‘rescue remedy tea’ of nettles, valerian, chamomile, and seaweed, and sprayed it on the leaves and fed around the roots. The plants recovered.”

Lillian feeds all her plants, especially transplants. “They need all the help possible to grow in these temperature variations.”

Lillian smiled as she recalled the many large gardens now sprouting in the Valley. She and Tom have had no small part in it, taking gardening to new limits. They are local resources. People come to learn and share and just plain gawk. An old Hispanic man came to her one day with five pounds of Turkish Colossal Garlic his family had begun planting five generations ago. It’s sweet, hot, and a beautiful shade of purple. Now she plants a thousand pounds.

“I’m always planting crops no one has heard of before. At first people shy away, but then I can’t grow enough of it. Like Italian Green Kale. It’s delicious chopped up and added to polenta. Steamed. Braised.”

The greatest stress at Green Earth is the diverse scope of plants and projects. “The scale of the farm is Tom’s, the diversity is mine,” says Lillian. Feeling overextended is a common state, especially in the summer.

Lillian will be fifty this year. She sometimes waivers under the stress of hard work, but she never doubts her place on this planet: to nurture. “I’m not analytical, not linear. I follow my intuition. My feminine wisdom. By nature, I respond and sense people’s needs. It’s all about service.”

Christina Nealson writes while she slurps on red ripe tomatoes that she grew in her garden at 8,500 feet, thanks to Lillian and Tom’s greenhouse.