Harvest of Riches
A treasure is unearthed only to be buried again—a tale of a people’s efforts to reclaim their past for the benefit of future generations.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Brandon Tigrette & Rick Scuteri
Treasures come in many forms, like the contents of what seemed ordinary, everyday mason jars. Nestled among family photos, the stash of jars was found in an old trunk in what was left of a near 50-year-old home that had succumbed to the elements and time.
“That’s where she was living when I married her,” says Terry Button of his wife Ramona’s family home. “It was a little two-room adobe, with no running water and just one electric wire running in for a bulb. It had an earthen floor and a wood stove, a thatched roof with mud on top of it. Her dad had built that house … and that trunk was still there years after he and Ramona’s mother had passed away.”
Like many of the best treasure stories, the find there offered both a connection to an ancient civilization and the potential to change lives, but not so much through monetary gain. Instead, it provided a path to riches far greater—those of health and happiness, even a renewed interest in a people’s proud past.
Then, too, the gems discovered in that jar offered the opportunity to grow more treasure, as they were seeds—specifically, tepary beans, a protein-rich legume that is reportedly among the most drought- and heat-tolerant crops in the world. Also known as bafv and pawi, the tepary was once a staple of the diets of the Pima and Tohono O’odham tribes living in the Sonoran Desert, near what is now Phoenix, Arizona.
The legume was also a key component in helping those communities earn a reputation as tenacious, innovative farmers, going back well before Europeans came to the area. Such standing lasted well into the 19th century, when area farmers even supplied wheat, according to Terry, to people living as far away as Kansas.
But times changed, as did water and property laws, and the American Indians’ ability to sustain crops in this vast desert began to wane. It’s that decline in agriculture, as well as the health of their neighbors, that Terry and Ramona, using their treasure, have worked to reverse over the past 40-plus years.
The Buttons met in South Dakota. Ramona was a practicing nurse there on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Terry—a self-described “Connecticut Yankee” with an interest in American Indian culture—had gone to live with the Lakota people. The two youngsters fell for each other and eventually moved back to Ramona’s hometown of Sacaton, just south of Phoenix, where they got married.
Terry ran a filling station, where, he says, “I got to know everybody in town,” which helped him eventually get a custom tillage operation under way, as well as his own small farm. Meanwhile, Ramona continued her work as a nurse, an occupation she pursued in large part because of the prevalence of preventable health issues she had seen among residents of her native Gila River Indian Community. Among them was her mother, who had diabetes and eventually went blind from the disease. (American Indians are 2.2 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to contract diabetes and have a 20% greater chance of contracting heart disease than the broader U.S. population.)
“When I came back from my nursing in different states,” says Ramona, “I began to notice the decline of health here … noticing how the diabetes was getting out of control. People were beginning to have heart ailments, kidney ailments, liver ailments.” Such concerns and Ramona’s work in health care soon intersected with Terry’s growing experience as a farmer. Ramona believed, as do many in the health care industry, that fatty, processed and sugary foods were exacerbating what appears to be a genetic predisposition to various diseases. She saw how a diet restricting such foods helped her mother, and she learned from her father, himself a farmer on the reservation, how to grow many of the crops raised by their ancestors. The Buttons wanted to join in efforts to fight the scourge of disease by growing these heritage foods and making them more accessible to their community.
Members of Ramona’s family and community offered support, as well as use of their farming lands to her and Terry. “Indian families had been allotted 10 acres of land to the head of household,” says Terry, explaining the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887. “They were expected to make their living off of that 10 acres. With drought and lack of water resources, much of which were allocated elsewhere, that became impossible.”
Making farming the land even more difficult, Terry says, “The Pima people had not been used to having individual land ownership … and the land eventually went to multiple heirs over many, many generations.” As a result, he adds, “it’s very difficult for Indian people to have enough land to farm.”
With the acreage of many families being farmed together under Terry and Ramona’s management, efficiencies could be achieved and costs lowered. As a result, the community would see an increased supply of those former staples of the Gila River Indians’ diet. “Some of the people who were leasing the land to Ramona, mostly her relatives and elder people in the community,” recalls Terry, “encouraged us to plant the bafv and other crops, because they couldn’t get them anymore.” A scarcity that created another hurdle: “We didn’t know where we were going to get the seed for it, especially the bafv,” recalls Ramona. “We tried and we couldn’t find any.”
That is, until they stumbled across those old, forgotten mason jars. It was 1976 and “those were the tepary beans … and they were sill germinating,” says Terry. “So we grew them out and started our seedstock.”
Over the past 40 years, Ramona Farms has grown to about 4,000 acres, some 200 of which are planted to tepary beans, as well as numerous other heritage crops. All told, Ramona Farms produces approximately 200 tons of indigenous crops each year, all of which are grown organically without the use of pesticides or commercial fertilizers.
To make their products available to the community, the Buttons process and package them, selling products online as well as in local and regional markets, the latter including Whole Foods stores, small-town grocers and gift shops. The foods are also used in more than 30 restaurants locally and nationally.
Today, the farm grows a range of crops, including those heritage staples, as well as cotton, alfalfa, oats and barley. The Buttons, as well as their children and several other family members, not only work the land, but also continue to advocate on behalf of Indian issues, such as water allocation, nutrition, agricultural land development, and soil and water conservation improvements on Indian lands.
“There is still so much to do,” says Terry, “but we’re in the process of seeing that happen, with things like helping to improve health of these communities and bringing more water to them. We’re seeing new canals being built, and we’re participating in a resurgence of farming by Indian farmers on reservation lands—that’s now being recognized as probably the future of Arizona’s agricultural economy,” he says proudly.
“All of these efforts have been our passion,” adds Ramona, “and we feel fortunate to have been here to do it.”