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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."