Ahh! Spring! The season of the sun bringing back the warmth to the ground. During the dark dormant days of winter, soils get a chance to rest, and winter is placing water for summer plants high in the mountains for cold storage in the form of snow. Looking across, what appears to be a dreadfully dry sagebrush covered landscape, water has been stealthily percolating underneath the San Luis Valley floor for hundreds and thousands of years, getting naturally filtered through layers of gravel and clay, and is, in places, also under pressure. All that is required, is to dig a well deep enough to find this pressurized water, tap it, and voila, an artesian well, meaning that the pressure alone will bring the water to the surface without mechanical pumping required.
On a recent visit to see Jason and Paloma Mestas, at their expanding farm "I Choose Organics" a few miles southeast of Alamosa, I had a chance to see the work in progress behind the beginning of the 2017 growing season. At 7,500 feet in altitude, this requires a lot of front end labor, but they have accepted the challenge of growing food in the high desert. I found them last year at the Alamosa Farmers Market, enjoyed buying their vegetables and discussing their passion, which I share, for growing healthy, chemical free food.
The first part of my tour was getting lovingly jumped on by their chocolate lab mix, who will spend nights in the enclosed garden area, with slightly different duties of a sheep dog, will be there to deter bunnies from coming in to the garden and ravaging the crops. Unlike in the town of Alamosa, deer browsing on shrubs and gardens is not a problem because the treeless areas in the valley are not a 'deer hangout.'
The key to a good growing season is getting a head start with a greenhouse. And they have built a 'fortress' of one, because the wind and the sun can wreak havoc upon any greenhouse poorly built. Several days of fifty mile per hour winds or stronger from Spring storms are not uncommon in the SLV, and if not battened down properly, parts of the greenhouse might end up in Dorothy and Toto's backyard in Kansas, several hundred miles to the East! Jason showed me the layers of super strong plastic, the reinforcements at the bottom on all sides of the greenhouse, the solid metal hoop construction, and the well-constructed wooden doorways on either end. He and his crew were in the midst of building raised wooden beds, filling them with good dirt, and building an arched cucumber trellis to attempt to control the crazy vines! Inside the greenhouse, the temperature was easily 20 degrees warmer than the outside, giving the soils a chance to warm before planting, which will happen before the end of March. The ground outside that will be used for other vegetables, had already been worked to prepare for planting later in the Spring.
Next, he showed me all the seeds he had purchased from a specialty farm out of the state of Maine. He had numerous herbs, 5 different kinds and colors of beets, carrots, potatoes, lettuces, and an assortment of tomato varieties. My mouth was watering thinking how long it had been since I had eaten a real tomato! He explained the choreography of how they would be planting so as to keep the veggies as healthy as possible. All the variables of temperature, water, soils, nutrients, sunlight are all critical to growing each crop. They also raise chickens that will eat bugs, scratch the soils, lay tasty eggs, and provide excellent fertilizer in the form of their manure. (My uncle, a big time farmer, always used to like the joke about the kid who lost his gum in the chicken yard --- thought he found it! - twice! - Knowledge of what chicken poop looks like is required for this joke.). Jason also showed me his simple, yet sophisticated planting machine. The plastic and metal device looks almost like a kid's toy to be found under a Christmas tree, but this is a well thought out machine that takes the guesswork out of planting and row spacing insuring better germination of the plants.
Lastly, but extremely important, I asked about his water source. They have an artesian well about 35 yards from their house and greenhouse. Jason explained that the well is about 140 feet deep and flows out at a steady 55 gallons per minute. I went over to check the water tank where the well water flows. The excess of water simply flows into a ditch creating a small, seasonal wetland. Healthy amount of algae in the tank indicated the water is not carrying high concentrations of nasty minerals that would inhibit plant growth. Farther North in the valley, where hot springs are located, the water comes out at varying warm temperatures, up to 140 degrees at Joyful Journey, whereas the well water here was earth temperature - roughly 55 degrees which is the steady temperature of earth several feet below the surface. Between the diversity of vegetables, the hard work on the front end, and the love that will go into the garden and greenhouse, I look forward to the local eating season.
See Jason, Paloma and crew at the Alamosa Farmers Market this summer along with many other creative farmers and ranchers who will bring everything from local cheeses, meats, beans, and an assortment of homemade goodies. Using the motto, "Let Food Be Thy Medicine", can be accomplished if shopping weekly at the market and sourcing these wonderful local foods.
The Alamosa Farmer's Market starts in July and sits across the Colorado Welcome Center on the corner of 6th St. & State Ave.