SACATON — The cool, wet weather at the beginning of the year and the slow start to the monsoon season caused a number of delays in starting or growing cotton and tepary beans, but Terry and Ramona Button of Ramona Farms still have high hopes for this year’s harvest.
The cotton is coming in strong now after a wet spring and late, weak monsoon season, and Terry expects to get at least two good harvests of tepary beans in before the end of the growing season. This year the farm has about 50 acres of beans, 1,300 acres of cotton and the remaining 2,600 are a mix of garbanzo beans, wheat, corn and alfalfa.
The couple is known for bringing back and keeping alive a staple of the traditional Pima diet, tepary beans. Ramona Farms products — including tepary beans, garbanzo beans, several types of wheat and corn — can be found in dishes at nearly 50 different restaurants in Arizona, Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah.
The Buttons started growing the beans in the late 1970s at the request of Pima elders who missed beans, Ramona said. Pima farmers stopped growing the beans and other staples years ago after the Gila River stopped flowing through the community.
But now that more water is returning to the community through the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, the Buttons hope to increase the yield of their crops in the most water efficient way possible.
The Pima know what it’s like to struggle to farm and survive without water, Ramona said.
After decades of legal fights, the community finally reached a settlement in 2004 with the surrounding cities, towns, irrigation districts and federal government to gain access to Colorado River water annually and received funding to buy down the cost of water from the Central Arizona Project and rebuild the San Carlos Irrigation Project (which served the area from the Gila River), according to the P-MIP website.
The reconstruction of the canal system, including the San Carlos Project, is finally reaching the Ramona Farms area.
“It took a lot of great minds to get to where we are today. Now it’s our responsibility to put the water to good use,” Ramona said, as she and Terry drove along the new cement-lined canals that border their fields.
In order to prepare for the new irrigation system, the Buttons and other farmers installed new cement-lined irrigation channels and laser-leveled their fields to improve the flow, use and drainage of the water on the fields, Terry said.
The couple is also reaching out to the organic food market. The Buttons recently went through the laborious process with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get 240 acres of one type of tepary bean certified as organic and are working on getting another 200 acres certified.
The USDA organic certification process involves following organic practices on a certain area of land for at least three years, Terry said.
According to the USDA website, that means the farm can only use certain substances, such as animal manure, to grow the crops they want certified organic; organically grown crops must be separated from non-organically grown crops; and strict records must be kept to show what substances were used on the organic crops and how they were handled.
The farm has to be inspected by an organic certification organization that has been hired by the USDA. The agent determines if a farm or crop meets the requirements and issues a decision allowing the farm to use the organic label on its product. In order to keep the organic label, the farm has to go through an annual inspection.
For Ramona, the organic process is a return to how she used to help her father farm the 10 acres allotted to her mother decades ago. He showed her how to watch how the plants responded to the soil they were planted in and how much water and light they were given. He taught her how to notice the changes in the wind and weather. Her mother taught her how to find, grow and harvest the traditional herbs the Pima people used in their daily life.
It was the memory of how those traditional crops helped her mother fight diabetes and requests from Pima elders that caused Ramona, a former nurse, to search for her father’s stash of tepary bean seeds and try to bring back the traditional Pima foods.
“We dedicated ourselves to bringing these crops back,” Ramona said.