Photo by Lee Allen
Ramona and Terry Button in their 50-plus acre tepary (or bavi) bean field in Arizona’s Gila River Reservation.

Bringing Back the Bavi: Gila River Farmers Focus on Traditional Crops

Lee Allen

Ramona and Terry Button are storytellers who farm—and farmers who tell stories—and they do both at their Gila River reservation farm in Sacaton, Arizona.  Ramona, Pima by birth, and Terry, Lakota through adoption, farm thousands of acres of rough desert terrain at the foot of the San Tan Mountains where they till and tell of traditional times.

Ramona has been sowing seeds and spinning stories since she was a little girl helping her father transform the desert landscape into the family’s first 10-acre plot—half to raise forage for the animals, the other half for a sustenance garden.

“My father, Francisco ‘Chiigo’ Smith, was a carpenter, a blacksmith, an adobe block-maker, an herbalist, and a traditional healer. You had to teach yourself how to do everything because we were self-reliant. He grew Pima wheat, corn, chiles, melons, squash, and tepary beans,” said Ramona, who grew up on the farm working the fields and living in a two-room earthen floor adobe home built by her father. She and her husband began planting her parent’s allotment in the mid-1970s and continuing to expand their acreage, doubling, then quadrupling their field acreage.

Early on, before the equipment availability and weed-resistant crops of today, Ramona had to leave her job as a nurse at Sacaton Indian Hospital in order to run the hoeing and weeding crew. She supervised a crew of 15 community members, and did so for 15 years until machines replaced human hands.

Not long after the family-run endeavor began to grow in scope, community elders began asking the Buttons if they would grow the bavi (tepary beans), which had all but become extinct. Because the tepary had been handed down for generations amongst the Akimel O’odham (River People, Pima) and their Tohono O’odham (Desert People) cousins, her father had the foresight to save some tepary beans in a jar and those became the seed crop that helped save the world’s most drought-adapted bean species from disappearance.

Bringing back the bavi is what it took for the Buttons to focus on traditional crops. “We keep a foot in both worlds,” Terry said. “We’ve dedicated ourselves to preserving crops of the Pima people and encouraging a return to a traditional diet. But in order to stay afloat economically, we utilize current cultivation technology, so we farm in a 21st century way, but still rely on traditional concepts.”

With anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000 acres under cultivation at any given time, the Button family grows a variety of items that pay tribute to the area’s long Native heritage. Their fields range from 50-plus acres devoted exclusively to three types of tepary beans, along with garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, four varieties of corn that represent Pima, Hopi, and Supai tribes, as well as barley, hay, alfalfa, cotton, and three kinds of wheat.

“Pima people represent the dawning of Arizona agriculture and their practices were adopted by settlers who arrived later,” Terry said.

“Life here on our 500-square-mile reservation is still very traditional in many ways, slower-paced than communities off-reservation,” added Ramona.

And although Ramona Farms offers wheat berries, wheat flours (pilkan chu’i) and corn products (huun) along with the other offerings, the family’s production centerpiece is the tepary (phaseolus acutifolius), native to Mexico and the western U.S. and grown there since pre-Columbian times.

Tepary beans are among the most drought- and heat-tolerant crops in the world (even found in Mexican deserts where annual rainfall is just three inches and temperatures hover near 120 degrees). The beans, black (S-chuuk), brown (S-oam) with an earthy flavor, and a sweeter white version (S-totoah) are high in protein, low on the glycemic index, and contain soluble fiber helpful in controlling both diabetes and cholesterol. Nutritionally, a half-cup of white teprary beans offers 21 grams of protein and 52 grams of dietary fiber.

Today, the family operates on the “share what you know” concept, knowing that their products provide nutritional benefits without artificial ingredients and wanting to pass that information along. “Our label says ‘Bring Our Traditions to Your Table.’ We’re exposing our products to the non-Indian world and they’re being well received. More people are becoming health conscious, making wiser food choices, and looking for less processing and additives, which fits right in with what we’re doing.”

Earlier this year, Ramona Farms was honored with the Good Food Good Person Award in the annual Arizona Farmer+Chef presentations, acknowledged as farmers who “grow, raise, and make tasty, nourishing, healthy-for-the-mind-and-body foods, and see food as a way to create community.”

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