By Debra Utacia Krol
An O’odham farmer and her family are helping restore traditional foods to the Southwest while building an impressive agribusiness in the process.
Ramona Farms, a 5,000-acre spread in the Gila River Indian Community just south of Phoenix, Arizona, produces indigenous crops for both wholesale and retail markets. But it’s the crops themselves—and the woman behind the crops—that’s the biggest success story.
Ramona Button, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, and her husband, Terry, are carrying on a 2,000-year tradition. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Huhugam and their descendants, the O’odham, produced a wealth of agricultural products on the fertile soil watered by the Gila and Salt rivers in what’s now known as the Valley of the Sun. They built more than 1,000 miles of canals, which brought water to their fields of corn, tepary beans, squash, gourds, melons and other indigenous foods to the arid region.
In fact, in the late 19th century, the Pima farmers were prosperous and self-sufficient. Several accounts note that the Pima people were selling 2 million pounds of wheat a year, and were also dealing in other foodstuffs. However, in 1871, that prosperity turned to dust when non-Indian farmers who had also settled in the area started diverting water. Soon, the once self-sufficient tribe plunged into poverty.
The O’odham fields remained dry, dusty and unproductive until water began returning to the ancient canals after several water settlements restored the tribe’s water supplies. That’s where Ramona’s story picks up.
Ramona Button’s father, Francisco ‘Chiigo’ Smith, farmed his wife Margaret’s small 10-acre plot near Sacaton, the capital city of the Gila River community. Smith raised the same crops as his O’odham ancestors—corn, chili peppers, various types of squash, gourds, Pima wheat, melons, sugar cane and tepary beans. As a young girl, Ramona helped her father plant, cultivate and harvest the crops.
Ramona married Terry, a scion of Connecticut farmers, and the couple worked their first farm in Nebraska. However, in 1974, two years after their marriage, home called, and the Buttons began working the Smith family farm. Soon, other relatives started leasing their lands to Ralph and Ramona, growing the farm to its current size.
In the late 1970s, Button was asked by some elders to grow tepary beans, called “bafv” in the O’odham language, which by that time nearly became extinct. She found some bean seeds in a trunk in her family home and cultivated them. “It became clear to us, especially with the urging of our community elders, that it was to become our mission to ‘bring the bafv back’ to the community,” she writes on her website. “We were able to get started with those few seeds of each color and learned how to produce the beans on a small scale.”
Tepary beans, Ramona Farms’ most well-known crop, contain more protein and higher fiber than ordinary beans. They also have a lower glycemic index, making them ideal food for people with diabetes or just people seeking to lose weight. In fact, tepary beans are arguably the healthiest beans on the planet.
Terry Button took those seeds and grew more beans, increasing the seeds for the next crop and educating himself on the best way to produce the beans on a commercial scale. After increasing the crop acreage, the Buttons began selling both white and brown tepary beans locally to other O’odham farmers. Next, they started growing more traditional crops. Then, they started selling off the reservation.
Today, Ramona Farms offers a variety of Native-grown traditional, heirloom and non-traditional crops. You’ll find traditional Pima wheat, including durum, Pima club and white Sonora wheat berries, and wheat Pinole, as well as roasted Pima corn, corn meal and polenta, for sale in stores as diverse as Whole Foods, the Tucson-based heirloom seed bank and store Native Seeds/SEARCH and museum gift shops. The farm also includes a milling and packing operation, and sells through its website and its retail operations with the help of the business’ six employees.
Button also gives presentations on cooking with tasty tepary beans and other traditional O’odham foods and lectures about the importance of these items in maintaining good health. ♦