“You want to know who I am? I was riding a horse before I was big enough to get on it by myself. When I was little, I worked in the fields every day.”
The year is 1947 and António Garcia is a five-year-old boy growing up in the small town of San Jose de Los Guajes, located in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a region famously known for the origins of mariachi and ranchera music, rodeos, and tequila. He lives in a hacienda-style home, the eldest of 10 children. His day is as cyclical as the nature of his work. Up with his father at 5:00 am, a young António begins the pattern of the day. Milk the cows, feed the pigs, gather the eggs, tend to the squash, ride through the cattle, fix the fence, repeat.
Seven decades later, Garcia still wakes at 5:00 am when his rooster crows, and spends the day weeding his fields and tending to his spinach, garlic, beets, and bolita beans. The ritual continues, but now in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, a high-altitude desert hugged by the mountain ranges of the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans, and Garcia’s home since 1978. In this valley at an elevation of 7,500 feet, farming is bolstered by mountain snowmelt, ancient aquifers, and the Rio Grande River.
Garcia and his wife Sandy (a 12th generation Coloradan) are the husband-wife team behind Tierra Sana, an organic farm based in the San Luis Valley. While Garcia manages the day-to-day farm logistics, Sandy oversees marketing and administration. Over the past five years, they have been growing at the 38-acre Rio Grande Farm Park, a local food coalition based in Alamosa, Colorado. Much of the produce Garcia grows in his fields ends up gracing the plates of our guests at the Zapata via Valley Roots, the local food hub. From bolita beans and summer squash to heirloom tomatoes and onions, Garcia’s produce is exceptional. He credits it to one seemingly simple philosophy: the importance of quality topsoil. “Tierra Sana” translates to “Healthy Earth” and, as Garcia repeatedly emphasizes, “our purpose is to take care of the soil,” which he rarely tills, digs, turns, or otherwise disturbs. “The more intact you keep the soil, the more it retains its qualities. You do not want to disturb the worms.”
Limiting tilling allows worms to tunnel, which in turn assists in drainage and aeration, promotes root growth, retains carbon and moisture, and decreases weeds–all vital components to farming, especially in an arid region like the San Luis Valley. No-till farming has been utilized for over 10,000 years, but with the emergence of new agricultural technologies (like the John Deere steel plow in 1837), tilling gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Garcia’s approach to farming has changed very little over the last seven decades. “When I think of the things I did as a child, it’s very similar to what I do now. I farm in an area and use cover crops, then every couple of years move to a different area. I give the soil time to heal. That’s what we were also doing in Mexico. We’d work an area, let the cows and horses fertilize it, then move on and let it rest.” Cover crops are not used for food production but are instead primarily used to improve and protect vulnerable farmland by minimizing weeds, attracting pollinators, increasing water availability, and decreasing erosion. In simpler terms, it protects the soil.
“When the soil smells good, you know it’s good. You have a responsibility to care for the earth. You bring a young person to the field they fall in love with the field,” Garcia says with unwavering conviction. He has undoubtedly fallen in love with not only the field, but the entire San Luis Valley. “The valley is almost the perfect place to be in the summer,” he says with palpable admiration. “I love to harvest the summer squash. It is all so beautiful.” In the summer he fills his plate with fresh greens and eggs from his chickens, as well as his favorite meal: “I love a bowl of bolita beans with a sprouted tortilla, scrambled eggs, onions, and spinach. I don’t need oil or spices, just a little bit of salt.” That’s the beauty of quality food–it doesn’t need to be altered. Garcia revels in picking a cucumber and eating it right in the field as a snack, or when he’s brave, an onion. His food can stand on its own.
For Garcia, food transcends simple nutrition. There is a ritual, a ceremony to it, and he speaks of it with deep reverence. It’s what gives his life purpose. “Have a dream, have an idea. Have a reason for being here on this earth. You should just not be here. Everybody was created for a reason. We all have the responsibility to take care of what is given to us.”