When Ramona Button was only 4 years old, her father told her it was time to leave her mother’s side and learn how to work on the farm. The farm was a 10-acre allotment on the Gila River Indian Reservation. “My father told my mother he would take me to the garden and tell me about the healthy foods, traditional foods,” she says. “My mother was blind, so for him to take me out was hard for her. He said to me, ‘You’re going to help me plant this field.’”
On the first day in the field, her father placed a handful of corn kernels in her hand. “He told me to feel the seeds, to taste them, that they came from the earth,” she says. “He told me, ‘Ramona, these seeds are the seeds of your ancestors; they hold the key to our health.’” This was her introduction to the life of farming and traditional foods.
Fast-forward 65 years to today. What was once Ramona’s 10-acre family plot is now Ramona Farms, a swath of 4,500 acres that yield a historic harvest—traditional Native American indigenous foods including brown, white, and black tepary beans, and 60-day corn, as well as heritage foods brought to the community by the Spaniards in the 1800s, including garbanzo beans, Pima Club wheat, White Sonora wheat, and black-eyed peas.
Owned and operated by Akimel O’odham community member Ramona Button and her husband, Terry, Ramona Farms has becomes a vast commercial farming enterprise that includes 200 miles of fields across the Gila Indian River Reservation growing—in addition to traditional crops—commercial crops of alfalfa, durum wheat, cotton, and Bermuda grass. The Buttons also oversee a milling and packing operation, and a thriving direct mail and retail business. The farm spans both sides of the Gila River, between the rolling San Tan Mountain range to the northeast and the craggy Sacaton Mountains to the south.
The story of Ramona Farms is a personal one, deeply rooted in family and tradition. Ramona’s father, Francisco “Chiigo” Smith, was Tohono O’odham; her mother, Margaret, was Akimel O’odham, or Pima. Ramona’s father “planted five acres for food and five acres for horses,” she says. “He would plow the fields with a horse-drawn plow to loosen the earth and a ‘smooch board’ to level the fields. Then we would use the old-fashioned planting stick to make a hole in the earth and drop the seeds into each hole.”
Terry comes from farming stock as well. A descendant of generations of Connecticut tobacco farmers, his father was an agronomist who became a landscape architect and, later, a horticulturist and the founder of Button Flower Farm. Terry has a long history of successful cattle ranching and farming, and worked with the Lakota community in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which is where he and Ramona met. “I found someone to work the land,” Ramona says, laughing.
Married in 1972, Terry and Ramona began farming in Nebraska, raising corn, beans, alfalfa, sheep, and cattle. Even then, they dreamed of Ramona’s family farm and after two years of working the Nebraska land, they started developing the Arizona property left by her mother, working both farms at the same time.
“In 1974, we started growing on my mother’s land; we used her 10 acres and my mother’s uncle’s 16 acres. Soon other relatives wanted to lease us land until we finally had 5,000 acres all over the reservation,” Ramona says. “My aunties came to us and said, ‘Please can you grow some of these foods for us.’ We saw that no one was growing our traditional tepary beans and that these foods were going away, as were the farms and farmers that were producing them locally. The elders came to us and asked for us to use their land to bring back the tepary beans.”
Inspired by community and family requests, Ramona and Terry were determined to bring these crops back.
“We started tepary beans in the late ’70s,” she says. “My dad had saved seeds and we found them in an old trunk in a Mason jar—I recognized them. My dad always had seeds. I remember him saying, ‘These are better foods for you. These are your true foods.’ It inspired me to start growing them.”
Terry started growing the tepary beans in a small area, mostly producing them for seed. ”We took big 10-pound burlap bags of them to stores and trading posts on the Tohono O’odham and Pima Nations, trying to keep them in circulation,” says Terry. Working with local elders and community members, Terry learned how to grow tepary beans and other indigenous foods and, through a process of trial and error, how to use commercial techniques to increase yields and guarantee a successful crop. “I learned the hard way how to farm this kind of land. We had a vision to bring some of this land back into production and to grow traditional crops,” he says.
“These seeds are the seeds of your ancestors; they hold the key to our health.”
Hard work, perseverance, and vision have resulted in a successful operation and a thriving family business. One of their daughters, Velvet, handles the sales and marketing and recipe testing; another daughter, Brandy, a culinary school graduate, handles food demos at local schools and diabetes awareness events; their son, Edward, drives the tractors; Terry’s brothers Karl and Dale work the harvesting, irrigation, and planting equipment. Community member Andrew Moyah handles the on-site milling, processing, and packaging operations.
A line of traditional food products including tepary beans (bavi), roasted ground 60-day corn (ga’ivsa), and parched corn pinole (huun haak chu’i) are sold under the Ramona Farms label directly to the consumer via their website, at farmers’ markets, through retail stores like Whole Foods and Native Seeds/SEARCH, and wholesale to restaurants and foodservice companies across the country.
Modern technology has replaced the horse-drawn plow and the planting stick. Today computerized tractors and combines use sophisticated satellite GPS technology to plow the fields to sub-inch accuracy, plant the seeds, and harvest the plants.
What would Ramona’s father think of all this? “He would be proud, “ she says, thoughtfully. “Smiling down to see what has grown from his handful of seeds.” ✜
Ramona Farms. Arizona 87. 520.418.3642. RamonaFarms.com.
This article is dedicated to Copper, Terry and Ramona’s dog, who died on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015.
Mary Paganelli is a chef, writer, and food lover. She is the author of the Foodlovers’ Guide to Tucson and From I’itoi’s Garden: Tohono O’odham Food Traditions.