2018 - Volume #42, Issue #3, Page #39[ Sample Stories From This Issue | List of All Stories In This Issue | Print this story | Read this issue]
Heirloom Native American Crops Finding A Market
“When I moved back to this area, I saw the decline in the health of the people and realized the old crops were no longer being grown,” says Ramona, a member of the Akimel O’Odham (Gila River Pima) community, Sacaton, Arizona.
She and Terry decided to do something about it. Their Arizona farm makes its money raising thousands of acres of cotton, alfalfa and other cash crops, but their passion is for crops that go back thousands of years.
They specialize in traditional native crops as well as some brought from Spain in 1685. They include black-eyed peas, wheat, melons and more.
“Our commercial farming operation has subsidized the research into these alternative crops and the equipment needed to produce them,” notes Terry.
The equipment is pretty simple, as much of the work is done by hand. Ears of 60-day Pima and blue corn are picked by hand at the milk stage, shucked and roasted over mesquite fires. The corn is cooled and spread out to dry in the sun before it is shelled. Some is shelled and finely stone-ground and sold as pinole. Pima Club wheat is roasted in large pans over open flames and then fine ground. Three different varieties of wheat berries that are not roasted are also available for sale, as is corn in 6 different processed products. In addition to the multitude of other fruits and vegetables sold locally, it is the tepary bean that stands out.
Ramona describes it as “the most drought adapted species of bean in the world. It is high in soluble fiber and protein and is a low glycemic index food.”
Native to the area, the tepary beans are a good example of why producing them is not a moneymaking enterprise. The beans grow as viny, bushy forms that are difficult to harvest mechanically. They are cut and brought to a thresher and then cleaned. Over the years, Terry has cobbled together what he calls his Rube Goldberg bean cleaner. Streams of air clean the beans, but separating them by their 3 colors is done by hand.
Corn is shelled with a 1925 John Deere corn sheller originally used by Terry’s grandfather on his Maryland farm. Aside from these 2 machines, most of the work is done by hand.
“If anyone cares to volunteer to help, let us know,” says Ramona.
In addition to growing the crops, Ramona and daughter Velvet demonstrate how to use the crops and provide recipes. They present both locally and at trade shows and conferences throughout the Southwest, as well as at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. As a result, demand is building.
“We have 35 restaurants and a number of stores ordering corn, wheat and beans weekly, from Washington State to Philadelphia and Boston,” says Ramona. “We’ve had orders on our website store from all 50 states.”
The Buttons hope the market continues to expand to the point that growing the crops can be profitable and more of the work can be automated. Currently, a 1-lb. package of tepary beans sells for $5.40. Finely stoneground, parched Pima corn pinole and Pima Club Wheat pinole are priced at $4.65 for 8 oz. Whole kernel cob roasted Pima corn sells for $10 per lb., while the same stone-ground corn sells for $11.25 per lb.
Check out Ramona Farms at FARMSHOW.com.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Ramona Farms, P.O. Box 2195, Sacaton, Arizona 85147 (ph 520 418-0900 or 520 418-3642; www.ramonafarms.com).
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