Meet Arizona Agriculture’s Button Family

Meet Arizona Agriculture’s Button Family
Ramona and Terry Button actually met in South Dakota while Ramona was from Arizona and Terry was an East Coast boy.

Nearly one weekend a month I head out on state route 87, kind of a back way to get to Dad, Pat Murphree’s, place in order to skip a portion of the traffic on Interstate 10 before getting to Casa Grande and then Arizona City. All these years I’ve been passing one of the most unique and interesting farming operations: Ramona Farms.

Ramona Farms, established in the early 1970s, represents the convergence of modern and traditional farming. As you turn left off 87 between mileposts 153 & 152, you’re a bit mystified about what might be going on here. Processing equipment and a non-descript farm office begin to give subtle hints. The “Welcome” sign tells you to come on in.

On the Ramona Farms' website, Ramona Button is quoted saying, “My father, Francisco ‘Chiigo’ Smith, an O’dham farmer, grew many traditional crops on my mother Margaret’s ten-acre allotment located near Sacaton, on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. My mother was an herbalist and traditional healer. My father grew corn, chilis, tepary beans, various types of squash, gourds, Pima wheat, melons, and sugar cane. Together, they taught me the value of our traditional foods to our daily nutrition and way of life.”

You get a sense she holds her family heritage and her culture close. And when I visited with her recently, she told me of the time her dad placed her on a large boulder and told her to close her eyes. He proceeded to teach her how to sense her surroundings, listen to the sounds and attempt to identify what insects and small animals might be chirping. Her appreciation for the land and nature is grounded, certainly.

Ramona and her husband, Terry, began farming on that very same allotment of her mother’s in 1974. “Our first crops were barley and alfalfa,” Ramona explains. “After expanding a few years later, by leasing land from my relatives and other community members, we added cotton, corn, and wheat.”

Members of the Arizona Farm Bureau for decades, the Buttons were called to even more by her elders when it came to the farm. “In the late 1970s, some community elders asked us to grow the Bafv (tepary bean), which had nearly become extinct due to the lack of water that put many of the local subsistence farmers out of business,” Ramona explain on the website. “We discovered that my father had left a few seeds of the white and brown tepary beans in glass jars in a trunk in the old adobe house that I grew up in. It became clear to us, especially with the urging of our community elders, that it was to become our mission to ‘bring the bafv back’ to the community. We were able to get started with those few seeds of each color and learned how to produce the beans on a small scale. Once we perfected our production techniques, we were able to develop our bean project into a larger enterprise and now market our beans in the local community and surrounding areas, in different colors and package sizes. We also offer other wholesome American Indian grown traditional, heirloom and non-traditional food products.”

 

Standing out in her bean field, Ramona Button explains the health benefits of the tepary bean.

 

So, this couple that’s launched a thousand seeds, well thousands of seed, can mostly take pride in rescuing the Pima peoples’ native seed.  

 

A farm profile of Ramona and Terry Button, owners of  Ramona Farms in Pinal County. Most historical information provided by Arizona Farm and Ranch Hall of Fame.

An ongoing series of our farm and ranch businesses.

 

Growing up years : Born in Sacaton to Francisco ‘Chiigo’ Smith, a Tohono O’odham and Margaret (Johnson) Smith, an Akimel O’odham (Pima), Ramona learned to grow traditional crops from her father, but her mother taught her the traditional ways of healing using traditional methods and desert medicinal plants, something that Ramona was keen to embrace.

A farmer, farm laborer, and blacksmith, Chiigo also made adobe bricks and helped build homes and delivered water to residences by team and wagon. Ramona’s mom, the herbalist, learned how to use plants to heal from her own parents. And despite being nearly blind, Margaret was a good cook and homemaker.

Being the farmer, Chiigo taught his daughter the importance of gathering and saving seeds. And ever busy, he was continuously working with the soil, studying and experimenting on how to improve his five garden plots, often improving soil fertility by using cow and chicken manure from the animals he raised for milk, eggs, and meat.

On Margaret’s ten-acre field and the sixteen acres he crop-share leased from Margaret’s Uncle, Frank Johnson, and his wife, Isabell, Chiigo also grew tepary beans, wheat and barley for his horses that pulled the plow and the wagonloads of White Sonoran and Pima Club wheat to the Pima Pride Flour mill, just three quarters of a mile west of their fields on the “Little Gila” on the Casa Blanca Canal.

Along with the ten-acre field, in which he grew barley for the horses that he used to pull his wagon and plow the fields and wheat for sale and to make flour for their biscuits and chemait (tortilla), he leased another two allotments totaling sixteen acres from Margaret’s Uncle Frank Johnson and his wife, Isabell. In his five-garden plots, he grew tomatoes, chilies, squash, sugar cane, gourds for dippers and rattles, melons and Pima corn and tepary beans.

 

 

Ramona Talks more about their original 10-acre plot of land that launched what today is a bigger farming operation. 

 

 

Their two main food crops were tepary beans and Pima corn. But Ramona’s dad was most known for his remarkable ‘long green chilies.” Chiigo had perfected the growing of chilies and had great tasting mild, medium and fiercely hot skok ko’okol (extremely hot chilies) that would leave white blisters on the lips of the uninitiated.

Like those native tribes with a tradition of farming in their culture, gathering and saving seed was core to her father’s preservation of some of their native varieties, like the tepary bean. He would save a certain percentage of the best seed from one season and plant them the next, never planting all the saved seed so that if in the event of a crop failure, there would still be some seed left to plant again. Chiigo told his daughter that she should be aware and to stay true to the traditional ways of growing and preparing and eating the tepary beans, Pima corn, and grinding her own Pima club wheat for flour to make che-chemait (tortillas) and biscuits.

Native to the Americas, Native Americans developed corn, or maize, to what we have today.

Later, Ramona, possessed with a heart to help people, began formal training as a nurse. Her training took her to Los Angeles, Phoenix and then back to Sacaton. With a degree as a licensed practical nurse, Ramona worked for the U.S. Public Health Service Indian Hospital in Sacaton. The director of nursing, Angel Cimino, a Lakota woman from Rosebud, South Dakota, observing how interested Ramona was in learning and how well she worked with people and cared for patients, offered Ramona an opportunity to take advanced training in Rapid City and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

On this extended training trek, Ramona would meet Terry Button, and the rest would be history.

Terry Button’s growing-up years couldn’t be more different. He was an east coast boy. Terry was born in Thompsonville, Connecticut, the eldest of nine children to Edward and Kathryn Button. They later moved further south to Middletown, where Terry and his three brothers and five sisters were raised. Their father was a WWII veteran, grew up on a tobacco farm in Thompsonville and later became an agronomist, getting his master's degree in science from the University of Connecticut, and eventually became head of Research and Development for the Connecticut Highway Department.

Terry, along with his three brothers, Keith, Karl, and Dale worked for their father on weekends and spring and summer breaks from school. Their mother, Kathryn (Hales) Button, grew up on a farm in Snow Hill, near Salisbury, Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula in the Chesapeake Bay area. So, agriculture was by no means foreign to Terry.

Kathryn was the first woman in the Hales family to attend and graduate from college, where she earned a degree in elementary teaching, skills she would hone while raising and educating her nine children, all who are well educated and successful. She was a devoted mother who instilled in all her children a thirst for knowledge and exceptional skills in writing.

Terry attended Middletown High where he lettered in track and cross-country and was a member of the National Honor Society. He attained the rank of Life Scout in the Boy Scouts of America and attended Wesleyan University and studied linguistics and ethnomusicology, among other disciplines.

While running cross-country, he met two exchange students from the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona and picked up a little of their language, a skill that proved invaluable when he met Ramona in South Dakota, as it was a dialect of her Pima language which she spoke fluently.

A clear sign of how Terry would become intertwined in native American culture, while still in High School, he was at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota one summer. He became quite close to one of the Lakota Sioux families, William and Nancy HornCloud. In a highly ceremonial process, Terry was honorarily adopted during a Hunka ceremony, into the William and Nancy HornCloud Lakota family. In fact, Terry became a Lakota singer, traveling to Powwows and ceremonies in South Dakota, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. In between these excursions, he broke horses and performed ranch work with his adoptive father, Bill HornCloud.

Chance Encounter, Sort Of: You may recall that Ramona’s director of nursing took notice of her and sent her to South Dakota for more training. This was around the same time Terry living there and working with the HornCloud family that had ceremoniously adopted him.

Terry and Ramona met while she was at the Pine Ridge Indian Hospital on the reservation. If truth be told, it was a setup. Millie HornCloud, Terry’s adopted sister and head nurse at the hospital, encouraged Ramona to meet him. 

Ramona and Terry Button in one of their Tepary bean fields

Once Ramona’s training was complete, she wanted to head back home to her own people to apply what she had learned. So, when she returned home to Arizona, Terry followed Ramona to Sacaton where they were married, December 1972.

They soon began to farm on the family allotment, around 1974, growing mainly barley and alfalfa. By leasing from her mother’s Uncle Frank and Aunt Isabell that land that Chiigo had leased from them, Terry and Ramona had enough acreage to keep Terry busy learning to farm as he worked at a gas station attendant in Sacaton and studied automotive mechanics at night school. He even went to Central Arizona College for ag business accounting under the tutelage of Professor Pat Harrington. 

Their Farming Business: In 1976, Ramona and Terry realized an opportunity to expand their farming business. Ramona leased additional land from relatives that had been farmed many years earlier before drought and loss of water delivery had forced the land to be abandoned, leaving it to be overrun with mesquites. A tragic period in history, Pima farmers in the early 1900s had lost their ability to irrigate their fields due to drought and the uncontrolled diversion of water from the Gila River by non-Indian settlers, many Pima families perished from famine.

Ramona has always felt a calling to bring much of the previously farmed land back. She and Terry saw an opportunity and moved on it.

“My dad dreamed I'd see greener landscapes here in the dry desert,” Ramona explained on a recent tour of their farm.

When she climbed Sacaton Mountain as a young girl with her father, he could see into the future and gazed upon green fields even though at the time it was desert and abandoned fields overgrown with brush. He asked her what she saw. Of course, her view was of the abandoned fields and brush. His vision showed him green fields in the distance along the Gila River. 

At the time she asked, "Well, who is going to do it?"

He said, "You are."

"How am I going to do that?"

Her dad said, "You will see!"

His vision for Ramona as a child paved the way for what the family is doing today. As I listened to her tell me about that mountaintop climb so many years ago, I thought, "Every child needs a visionary dad like Ramona's." 

In 1976, Terry’s youngest brother, Dale, moved from where he was working in Florida and helped Terry clear the trees, brush, and old fence lines in order to consolidate ten-acre allotments into larger fields and install concrete-lined irrigation ditches in order to farm more efficiently.

Realizing that they would need to purchase equipment to farm with, as custom services were unavailable in the remote reservation area, and noticing that there were several local Pima individuals who were also interested in farming and had begun to consolidate some of the small allotments in nearby villages, Terry and Dale started a company they named Button Brothers Tillage and provided custom tillage and planting services. As the operation became more efficient, Ramona leased more land for the brothers to operate.

One of their largest customers, farming 1,200 acres mostly with his own equipment, was a Pima farmer named Harlan Bohnee, who had earlier earned an MBA. Harlan was offered an opportunity to pursue a career teaching at Scottsdale Community College. So, he approached Terry in 1980 to custom farm and manage his acreage. By 1982, Harlan, Terry, and Ramona formed a farming company known as Stotonic Farms, Inc., named after the village where Harlan had grown up farming with his mother, Ruth (Wilson) Bohnee's extended family lands with his father, Eugene. Harlan's father, Eugene Bohnee, was a translocated Hopi, originally from Second Mesa, Arizona. 

In 1981, another of Terry’s brothers, Karl, graduated from the University of Arizona and came to work on the farm with Terry and Dale. That year, Terry and Ramona purchased a 652-acre irrigated farm on Mirage Flats near Hay Springs, Nebraska, while continuing to farm at Gila River and run a small cow-calf ranching operation with Bill HornCloud, then in his 70s, on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The brothers learned about commercial dry bean production and harvesting, knowledge which put them in a good position to adapt their production techniques for the tepary beans which Terry and Ramona had wanted to increase the acreage for some time. Terry and Ramona sold the Nebraska farm in 1987.

In 1990, the couple and brother, Dale, formed a company known as Dart Properties, LLC, which purchased a farm in Stanfield, Arizona where they raised cotton and durum wheat. In 1990 there was not enough water behind the Coolidge Dam on the Gila River at San Carlos for there to be any water allocation for the 100,000 acres of the San Carlos Irrigation Project. Needing to have land to farm to meet their debt obligation and provide work for the employees of Ramona Farms, Karl and Dale leased from the City of Mesa a 1,600-acre tract of land south of La Palma and East of Eloy which had been purchased by Mesa for its water rights. The three brothers surveyed the property, rough leveled some fields, reorganized the irrigation water distribution system with one mile of earthen ditch and a new canal turnout. During the next two years, they raised three-bale cotton using only three-and-one-half-acre-feet of water per year. In 1991 they grew three and half bales per acre of Pima cotton. 

Early in 1990, Terry and Ramona accompanied a delegation from Gila River and representatives of the Gila River farms to Washington D.C. They testified before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, as representatives of the private sector in Indian agriculture on the reservation, in support of a request by the Gila River Indian Community for funding by Congress of an “interconnect canal” between the CAP aqueduct east of Coolidge, Arizona to the “Pima Heading” of the San Carlos Indian Irrigation Project. This would enable the Gila River Indian Community to receive its contracted Central Arizona Project Water, for which there was no facility to convey it to the reservation. Little did the Buttons know that the money would be appropriated. The Gila River Farms Construction Division was awarded the contract in the early part of that year and by April of 1990, the interconnect canal was completed. Central Arizona Project supplied water to the Gila River Indian community, which then distributed the water to the growers at a cost of $55.00 per acre-foot. Since the water was now available and the leases had to be paid, the Buttons were now farming bigger acres. In fact, suddenly the Buttons had 7,500 acres to farm!

“Those were interesting times,” say both Terry and Ramona.

Beginning in 1995, with the help of partner and longtime friend, Tim Robinson, godfather of their son Edward, they grew Robust Premium super-sweet corn. With two harvests a year, they supplied most of the major grocery chains and many small brokerages with waxed-cartons of four dozen ears of fresh sweet corn, place-packed and slush-ice injected, picked fresh every day during the season. They shipped to locations as far as the Mississippi River to the West Coast and from Canada to Mexico. It was shipped from coolers located in Maricopa, Eloy, Phoenix, and the Salt River Indian Reservation and finally from Yuma, as local cooler space was overtaken by the thousands of acres of cantaloupes that were then being grown in Pinal and Maricopa counties for Dole and Del Monte.

Today, Terry’s brother, Dale farms cotton, durum wheat, garbanzo beans and Bermuda grass hay on the Stanfield farm. Harlan Bohnee, now deceased, retired from the Button and Bohnee Farming Partnership in 2016 while Terry, Karl, and Danny Mark continue to run the 4,000-acre commercial farming operation and grow the traditional crops organically for Ramona’s American Indian Food, LLC, dba, Ramona Farms.

What Inspires Their Efforts? Along with their mission of bringing back the traditional foods of the Pima, Terry, and Ramona have worked to set an example for other Indian community members and have encouraged them to become engaged in agriculture. It has been their mission to encourage entrepreneurship within the Gila River Indian Community and to promote the use of Indian land, water and labor resources by Indian people themselves to develop the local economy of their reservation communities.

Terry and Ramona have been instrumental in re-establishing agriculture on the reservation, improving water distribution to Indian farmers, and providing custom farming and harvesting services for small and beginning Pima farmers. Terry is always available to give advice and assistance when asked. The Buttons are noted for the consistent quality of their production of commodity crops including cotton, durum wheat, alfalfa, and Bermuda grass hay. They are noted for their consistently high quality and tough, but fair, price negotiation.

Thanks to hard work and family devotion, encouragement of friends and landowners and great partners, Ramona Farms has been successful for more than 42 years. 

Their Heritage Crops: As mentioned earlier, Ramona was asked by the elders of her tribe to grow the Pima people’s traditional crops. As a result, Ramona Farms has been a leader in the growing and harvesting of traditional Native American food crops and the preservation of indigenous heirloom seeds since the 1970s. In addition to growing traditional Pima crops of tepary beans and Pima corn, they also grow Hopi blue and Supai red corn varieties obtained from trade with neighboring tribes, as well the "acculturated" food crops brought by Jesuit missionary, Padre Kino, who in 1685, was the first European to make contact with the Akimel O’odham (Pima). These "acculturated" crops have been grown by the Pima for over 300 years, and include black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, white Sonora wheat, Pima club wheat, and melons. Ramona and Terry and their family also grow commercial crops of cotton, alfalfa, bermudagrass for hay, durum wheat, barley, oats, corn and grain sorghum on the several thousand acres of Gila River Indian community lands.

Their American Indian foods ...

Terry explains that commercial crops, like cotton, durum wheat, and alfalfa, help finance their work with the heritage crops.

All three children and grand-niece, Maria Pablo, grew up helping in the fields irrigating, driving tractors and weeding endless miles of cotton, corn and bean rows during their summer vacations from school.

Brandy, their eldest daughter, a chef, helps to promote their native food crops, using them whenever she caters for large gatherings and special occasions. Velvet, the second daughter, possesses a flair for creating exciting and attractive food dishes and has a passion for gathering the wild foods of the desert. She develops recipes using traditional foods in new and unique ways, providing cooking classes and demonstrations. With the help of their ‘sister,' Maria Pablo, who works at the farm office, and together with grand-daughters Isabella Rose, Brandy's daughter, and Maize Indigo, Maria's daughter, they promote Ramona Farms products at trade shows, farmers' markets, conferences, and schools where they help Ramona educate young Pima students about their wonderful culture and “native foodways” and encourage them to eat healthy traditional foods and learn about how they are grown and prepared. Edward, Terry and Ramona’s youngest, helps with the growing and harvest of the beans and other crops and studies holistic nutrition. Son Edward’s daughter, Tea Bri, is the youngest grand-daughter. She is a freshman in Florence High School, where she is involved in softball and student council. Tea rode cotton pickers with her dad at the age of three years old and loved to ride on her grandfather's shoulders as he checked their cotton, corn, grain sorghum, wheat, and tepary bean fields.

Terry’s brothers, Dale and Karl, have worked as part of the family helping to run the farm since 1976 and 1980 respectively. Dale is now farming on his own on the Dart Properties farm in Stanfield. Karl is the Production Coordinator, for Ramona Enterprises, who schedules irrigation, tracks water use and maintains fertilizer and crop protection chemical applications on the conventional crops. He also does the land-leveling design and cotton and grain harvest supervision. Their sister, Karen, employed with the family farm since 1986, is the office manager and comptroller and manages the internet-based store, all via a virtual private network from her hometown of Middletown, Connecticut, where she and youngest sister, Marsha, reside and care for their 96-year-old mother, Kathryn Button.  Another important member of the farm business is the irrigation foreman, Danny Mark, a Pima tribal member who has been with Ramona Farms since 1983. In fact, the 20 employees of Ramona Enterprises are a critical part of what makes the farm run. Their dedication to the farming operation is felt every day.

Fully aware that they alone cannot claim success for their endeavors, Terry and Ramona extend their gratitude for the support and guidance of many great individuals whom they have had the privilege of knowing and working with over the past forty-seven years. Their influence has contributed to the success of Ramona Farms. If you visit long enough with them, they regularly name the individuals who made a difference in their lives.

Especially noted here are the late former Governors of the Gila River Indian Community, whose respect and friendship was invaluable. The late Mary Thomas, Ramona’s first cousin; Loyde A. Allison, a WWII veteran and traditional Pima farmer his entire life; the late Dana Norris, who held the firm belief that the Gila River Indian Community would regain its water rights; Thomas White, former Governor of the Gila River Indian Community and still active in farming and ranching in District 5; and Cecil Antone, retired,  former Lieutenant Governor and past Director of the Gila River Indian Community Office of Water Rights.

For their encouragement and respect, Terry and Ramona especially recognize former Governor Donald R. Antone, Sr., still farming and ranching at the age of 80 years old; former Governor Richard Narcia, who also served as the past director of the Irrigation Rehabilitation Program; current Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, and his late father, Rodney Lewis, former counsel for the Gila River Indian Community and lead negotiator of the landmark Gila River Indian Community Water Settlement as well as Lieutenant Governor Robert Stone, also a farmer from District Five with a passion for retaining the cultural and agricultural heritage of the Akimel O’odham.

Additionally, they often mention the unwavering encouragement from Lieutenant-Governor Monica Antone; Councilwoman Brenda Robertson, retired; and the late Councilmen and farmers from District One, Harry Cruye and Ardell Ruiz, also a cousin of Ramona’s.

They continue by mentioning long-time friends and supporters including the late Ira Green, veritable wizard at metal fabrication and equipment design; the late Mac Holmes of Casa Grande, who built their dirt ditches and kept them maintained; the late Harlan Bohnee, long-time friend and business partner, “Uncle Harlan” to their children; Ruth Bohnee, an enthusiastic promoter of Ramona Farms and their products; the late Glenn Quick, grain broker and marketing mentor; Mel Anderson, their CPA for 35 years; Riftin Curtis, long-time banker, mentor, good friend and fishing buddy; John Goodwin, aerial applicator and furniture maker; Tim Robinson, former sweet corn farming and real estate partner; and John Walker, customer combiner, hauler and hunting partner, Gary Nabhan, author and ethnobotanist; and Amadeo Rea, author, conservator of Pima Taxonomy and the history of the indigenous Pima food crops and many others, who along the way still to this day provide support and encouragement for their journey.

Looking back, they now realize that the family farming tradition is a continuation of the efforts of Ramona's father, Chiigo, born in 1894. Today the family farms with modern machinery the very land that Chiigo farmed with horses. His long-ago vision (around 1955) from atop Sacaton Mountain is now reality.  


 

Editor’s Note: A few years ago, Executive Director for Arizona Farm and Ranch Experience Carole DeCosmo interviewed Terry and Ramona Button. Her colleague and historian transcribed the interview and wove it into a story for the Arizona Farm and Ranch Hall of Fame. Here, I take the original quotes I gathered from Terry and Ramona last September (2019) and extensive information they gave me to tell even more of their unique story.

 

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