Farming The Desert

This couple brings 50 years of farming experience to the epic task of producing crops in the harshest of environments.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole and Brandon Tigrett

“My father always sang a blessing song when he put the seed in the ground,” says Ramona Button. She sits on hay bales in a storage barn with her husband, Terry, and remembers the instructions from her father that came with the song: “‘Just put three seeds in there, one for the insects, one for maybe the mouse…’” And one to emerge from the desert ground.

“Sure enough,” she says, “they come up.”

The smiles Ramona and Terry wear while telling this tale make it clear they don’t actually plant three seeds for every plant they grow here in Sacaton, Arizona, in the heart of the Gila River Indian Community. The typical observer might assume that only a prayer could bring seedlings out of the ground in this desert climate, so maybe the blessing song does play a role in their success.

But it might also be the farming experience the couple has together. “We’ve been working together, farming together for going on almost 50 years,” says Terry. The two have learned lessons over that time about how to combine native crops with conventional farming to create a renowned business, called Ramona Farms, that serves a remarkably diverse set of markets.

Native American Culture and Crops

The Buttons’ 50-year-old story begins with something of a chance meeting. Terry, a native of Connecticut, took an interest both in farming and Native American culture as a young man, which led him to an apprenticeship in South Dakota. “I was up at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and staying with a family there that taught me a lot of the Lakota Ways, the language, culture, music,” he says. He traveled around to other reservations in the Plains, learning how to manage cattle and handle horses. “While I was there, Ramona left from Arizona to go there and further some studies in nursing. And I ran into her.”

Ramona remembers that some of the residents at Pine Ridge spoke to her of an “adopted cousin” that spoke her language. “So one evening they came along and brought him. And he was just standing there and they were elbowing him, telling him, ‘Say something to her,’” she laughs. And Terry did, though in a different dialect than hers. “But I understood him. And so, that’s where our friendship began.”

Terry followed Ramona back to Arizona in 1972, when she got a job at the hospital on the Gila reservation. They were married in December of that year. Terry still had the farming itch, and he and Ramona started with the 10 acres allotted her family (through the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887) and grew from there.

Native crops were not only appropriate for the environment, but essential to the establishment and growth of Ramona Farms in the first place. “Ramona began leasing some ground from some of her relatives who encouraged her to grow the native crops,” says Terry. “My relatives own a large part of this acreage here,” says Ramona. “And they said, ‘If you’ll bring the tepary beans back, we can lease you our land forever. How much you would like.’”

Through various agreements, and promises to both improve the land and use it to grow native crops, the Buttons have put together 4,000 acres in various plots that span across 20 miles of desert.

“We started growing alfalfa and barley and then cotton,” says Terry. “At the same time, we were introducing a small plot of the tepary beans, the seed for which Ramona found that her dad had left in an old trunk! He had saved back seeds and we were able to start with those.” Three colors of tepary beans—black, white, and the brown that came from her father’s saved seed—are still grown today. And the brown beans are still Ramona’s favorite, “because it smells like the first rain in the desert while it’s being cooked,” she says.

Other native crops include four varieties of Indian corn, including a maroon corn called Ramona Red. Then there’s white Sonora wheat, Pima Club wheat, and garbanzo beans. The native crops have attracted the attention of foodies and restaurants looking for unique farm-to-table menus or offering authentic Native American cuisine. “We have really benefited by a lot of the work of the Native chefs, all over the country,” says Terry.

Conventional Crops

The conventional crops grown at Ramona Farms are an economic necessity to help keep the promise of keeping native crops in the operation. Upland and Pima cotton, along with Durum wheat for pasta milling, comprise the commercial row crops, with sorghum worked in for rotation.

The Buttons grow alfalfa hay for forage, export, and also for baled hay for commercial sales to feed. Some of their clientele sells hay to the border patrol for their horses; some of it goes into dairies, and off-grade hay goes for dry cow feed or to feed yards. They also grow Bermuda for the horse market.

Terry says the native crop side “really is supported by the larger farming operation,” and that the commercial crops help with all manner of investments, including equipment. He also points out that some of the native crops need mechanical cultivation, planting and harvesting, and that, combined with their commitment to improve the land, means making careful choices in equipment purchases.

Fendt Tractors For A Tough Environment

“We looked at the age of our fleet and the upcoming economic conditions and what our cropping plans are, and we decided to make a purchase,” he says. That purchase decision turned out to be a switch to Fendt tractors. “The Fendt tractors that we operate on this enterprise are two 718s, two 933s, a 936 and an 1162.”

Quite the fleet, but each tractor is suited to specific jobs on the farm. One of the 718s pulls a small square baler, and the other is used for field maintenance, such as running a blade around the fields, rerunning irrigation berms for borders, spreading fertilizer and even running cultivators. Terry describes the 933s as “workhorses.” One pulls a large square baler, and the other pulls land planes, discs, cultivators, planters and grain drills; it also “has good lifting capacity,” says Terry.

The newest piece is the 1162, which does “does all the extremely heavy work,” says Terry. “That machine was pulling a load that, normally, when we were pulling it with our previous fleet, we would have to run engine wide open at 2200 RPM to develop enough horsepower to maintain pull. This (1162) tractor was loading the bucket, and just purring along at 900 RPM,” he says.

“Because it has a CVT transmission, just flawlessly accelerates speed and hauls the dirt to the fill area, slows down, and starts depositing the soil in the low spots,” he says. “So it worked really well, very efficient, smooth operation. We were able to level our fields so much more rapidly than in the past. I really couldn’t believe it.”

The lower RPM means “significant fuel savings,” says Terry. “I would say that probably runs at least three times longer than the same rated horsepower machine running up against the throttle.”

The tractors might make for more efficient work, but it’s still the desert. “The conditions that we operate in, the ambient temperatures in the summertime, in June especially, can be as high as 120 to 122 degrees midday,” says Terry. “We haven’t had engine cooling issues, we haven’t had air conditioning issues … The cab cooling system is really incomparable. It’s really wonderful.”

Ease of operation also comes with peace of mind. “We have the Gold Star warranty … it basically carries us through the period of time that we’re going to be making payments on the machine and it kind of keeps it in balance what our repairs are,” says Terry. “The other advantage that I see in it is that at the point of purchase, you’ve locked in the price of your service items, and you’re not (as) exposed to inflation.”

Legacy With The Land

Besides farming the desert themselves, the Buttons invest time in showing others how they do it, and why. Much like Ramona learned from her parents and grandparents, “one of the driving passions that Ramona had was to teach the younger people who they are,” says Terry. “Where they’re from, what their culture is, what their diet used to be … how it was important to the culture,” says Terry.

“I have a whole desert out there that I can eat off of, to harvest it, to preserve it,” says Ramona. “I hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s just cactus and sticks and rocks and mountains.’” But she and Terry have fifty years of promises kept, nevertheless, with the help of hard work, expertise—and a blessing song.