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 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
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
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
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
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
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."