Taos pueblo couple farms and cooks
in the old ways that work

Their restaurant gives diners tastes of the New Mexican high desert that have been savored for centuries.

By Henry Homeyer

Pueblo farmers trending conventional

According to the New Mexico Organic Commodities Commission, the only certified organic acres on Native American land is a recently certified split operation, Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) in northwest New Mexico. In the four pueblos I visited, the people I met told me that they (or their children) farmed organically, but did so only to supply the needs of their families. According to Ben White Buffalo, farmers on the pueblos are increasingly using tractors and adopting conventional agricultural techniques.

--HH

Tiwa Kitchen: overview and review

The Tiwa Kitchen Restaurant is located on the access road to the traditional part of the Taos pueblo.

Farm-processed foods for sale at the restaurant (and by mail-order) include: Pueblo blue corn fry-bread mix, feast day red chile mix, blue corn pancake mix, traditional atole (a hot beverage containing blue corn), organic chokecherry syrup and organic chokecherry jelly.

Meals at the restaurant cost between $6.75 (pueblo chili) and $14.95 (fresh trout). I tried the phien-tye: a blue-corn fry-bread stuffed with buffalo meat and smothered with red or green chili sauce, served with fresh grilled vegetables and beans.

My wife had twauh-chull: grilled buffalo meat and onions served over a bed of wild rice with a homemade blue-corn tortilla, sautéed vegetables and beans. Both were delicious. Each meal was $12.95, and we went away well fed. We also tried two traditional drinks: Indian tea made from a wild-harvested herb, and atole. No alcoholic drinks are sold.

Hours: 11 am to 7 pm in the summer, or to 5 pm in the winter. Call 505-751-1020 for more information.

For information on Taos pueblo visit www.taospueblo.com or call 505-758-1028.

--HH

Posted December 8, 2005: Ben White Buffalo and his wife, Debbie Moonlight Flowers, both of the Taos pueblo, are among the few Native American farmers on the New Mexico pueblos who are still farming the way their grandfather's grandfathers farmed.

The people of the 19 New Mexico pueblos are thought by some to be descended from the Anasazi, whose agrarian culture flourished in here from 900-1000 A.D.--well before the arrival of the Apaches and Navajos. Each pueblo has its own language and culture and its own creation stories, though there are many similarities among them.

Taos Pueblo sits at the foot of the Sangre de Christos Mountains, at an elevation of 7,200 feet, some 70 miles north of Santa Fe and about five miles outside the town of Taos. The pueblo has been continuously occupied for more than a thousand years. It consists of flat-roofed adobe buildings, portions of which are thought to be among the oldest structures in North America.

"We do what was passed down from our grandfathers. We don't alter our soils too much. We try to help it here and there."

--Ben White Buffalo

Ben and Debbie are the only Native American farmers I met during a visit to four New Mexico pueblos last year who are farming commercially. They raise 3 to 5 acres of Indian blue corn, white corn, sweet corn, squashes, dry beans, pumpkins and tomatoes. They also harvest spices, wild onions and garlic in their garden and elsewhere. These crops help them supply most of the food and flavor for Tiwa Kitchen Restaurant, which they own nearby. They also package and sell a variety of dried foods and prepared mixes at the restaurant.

Even though Ben and Debbie are growing for a commercial market, they farm in the traditional ways, in harmony with the ways of their ancestors. "We do what was passed down from our grandfathers," Ben said. "Anything that comes from the earth without any chemicals is organic to me. We don't alter our soils too much. We try to help it here and there."

Communal water works

The people of Taos Pueblo have been managing water for irrigation communally for centuries. Their high desert land receives only about 7 inches of rain a year, making the melting winter snows the lifeblood of their agriculture.

Each spring, the pueblo's governor--elected annually by tribal leaders--calls on the men of the pueblo to clean out the irrigation ditches. Even as more and more men work off the reservation, most show up for the annual task whether they are going to use the water or not.

Boys join the training phase of the work ritual at age eight. A special day and special ditches are assigned for the boys to learn the proper ways of doing the work and of working together.

The ditches distribute water from mountain-fed Red Willow Creek to Ben and Debbie’s fields without any use of modern irrigation equipment. The flow is diverted down the rows to irrigate their crops.

During the winter months, farmers open their field gates so horses and other livestock can graze the fields and glean any leftovers. Manure from this grazing period is a traditional part of the soil enrichment for crops. Like his ancestors, Ben does not follow a set crop rotation, often planting crops in the same fields year after year.

Ben and Debbie make compost using organic matter from the restaurant and agricultural waste. They dig pits, 4 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet deep, and fill them with whatever they can get. Sometimes they can get chicken or turkey manure or even buy a truckload of suckers -- a junk fish -- from Eagle Nest Lake. They spread the compost before plowing in the spring.

Ben and Debbie farm a number of small, irregularly shaped plots in and around the confines of the pueblo. They work together at almost everything they do, in the fields and in the restaurant. Their three children, now ages 15 to 21, have helped in the fields since they were young--planting, weeding and harvesting.

Beginning the corn year

Ben uses a horse and a two-handled, V-shaped, walk-behind plow for turning the soil. He is not opposed to using a tractor, but he figures he saves money without one. The plow belongs to his uncle and is shared with other members of the family. The fields are always irrigated before plowing to soften the loamy soil. After plowing, Ben uses his horse to drag an eight-foot pole, about 12 inches in diameter, over the flat fields to smooth them out.

Indian blue corn is a staple food on the pueblo and at Tiwa Kitchen. The variety grown here is well adapted to the climate, requiring less water and fertilization than modern hybrids. Ben and Debbie told me that no mechanical planter they’ve tried works as well as planting their corn by hand. Usually Ben uses a shovel to make a divot, and Debbie -- often with the help of their children -- plants the seeds. Debbie says the seeds go in fairly deep, 3 to 6 inches, about 18 inches apart in rows about 12 inches apart, just wide enough to allow for irrigation.

Weeds are controlled by hoeing. According to Ben, nobody hoes until the first part of June, when the corn is about 8 inches tall. They wait until the word is given by the tribe's spiritual leader, and then everyone begins at the same time. Hoeing is sometimes done communally: a group of men may show up in Ben's field unannounced and just get to work, going down the rows and hoeing out the weeds. Another day, he will help them in someone else's fields.

A second weeding is done when the corn is about 18 inches tall. Then the corn is well established and they can weed right up close to it, Ben said. At that time they also hill the corn, mounding soil over the stalks to help keep it from blowing over. They grow pumpkins and squashes in between and around the corn, just as their ancestors did. Their most troublesome weed is bindweed.

Insects are not usually a serious problem, according to Ben and Debbie. "We do have some trouble with grasshoppers, but they don't come in swarms," Ben told me. "But they do make a living in our garden." It may be that without chemical fertilizers that push fast growth, the crops are less inviting to insect pests. If necessary, these farmers hand-pick insect pests.

At harvest time the entire family, including Ben's mother, helps to pick the ears by hand into wheelbarrows for transport to their truck.

Whole ears of fresh blue corn are baked in their traditional outdoor beehive ovens for 15 minutes or so and then eaten warm. For storage, the dry ears are hung in bundles tied together by their turned-back husks. The couple takes batches of corn to be ground as needed to a commercial mill, reserving the best ears for planting next season.

Field to Taos table

Fifteen years ago, Ben and Debbie prepared and sold some food for a powwow, then began preparing food at home and selling it at other events, including concerts. In developing a business plan for their restaurant, they concluded that growing their own food would be a big plus: it would all be local, organic, and essentially cost only their labor.

They supplement what they grow with food from other local farmers and wild harvesting. Each year they buy two free-range, grass-fed bison from the tribal herd, with each animal providing 700-800 pounds of meat. Ben respectfully kills and butchers them himself, honoring their spirits. The meat is remarkably tender and has a noticeably different flavor than beef.

The couple built the restaurant themselves, harvesting the logs for the vigas (ceiling beams) in the tribal forest in the mountains, plastering the interior walls with adobe and covering the outside with a thin layer of concrete. The restaurant has one big room, about 30 by 50 feet, with large windows looking out on the Sangre de Christos range.

Ben built two traditional beehive-shaped, wood-fired outdoor ovens outside the restaurant's back door. They also use them for baking corn and roasting peppers -- up to 300 pounds at a time!

Ben and Debbie close the restaurant for four to six weeks every year (in March and April in 2006) when the pueblo holds traditional spiritual ceremonies and is closed to visitors. It’s an economic hardship for the couple, but it reflects their respect for the community's traditions.

On the Tiwa Kitchen printed menu, Ben White Buffalo and Debbie Moonlight Flowers express the philosophy of their business and their farming: "We hope that the love, energy and care we have put into our restaurant and the food we prepare for you will make you feel comfortable and welcome."