Chile Garden Evolves

The Genesis of The Native American Seed Recovery Program

In 2016, the Governor of Arizona became concerned with an issue that the clergy and parishioners of Transfiguration had been aware of for many years. Namely that hunger is endemic and widespread in our State. According to the Association of Arizona Food Banks, and no fewer than 3 Federal Agencies (USDA, FEMA, and HEW), 1 in 4 children, 1in 5 adults, and 1 in 6 seniors are at risk for sufficient daily food. Our answer at this church, back in 2006, was to start the Million Meals for Our Neighbors program. Over the years that program has provided the funding for 1,360,000 meals. The Governor’s answer, however, was to call a meeting to discuss the issue in terms of the relationship between food and agriculture and their effect on food equity.  Growers, cattle ranchers, dairies, poultry farmers and food producers from all over the State attended, and even small growers like The Crazy Chile Farm were given a seat at the table. Yet, despite two days of talk, collective brainstorming, and skillful moderation by the Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture, very little happened. But a chance encounter at the very end of the conference resulted in some very big program adjustments for our little farm.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, Nina Sajovec, Director of the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, came over to my table and asked me if I would be willing to use a small portion of The Crazy Chile Farm to do a “grow out” of an indigenous North American bean called a tepary bean. Nina was looking for help with a project to grow seed stock for members of the Tohono O’odham tribe in southern AZ who were trying to re-establish traditional agriculture on tribal lands within the 4,400 sq. mi. of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Cheated out of their water rights in the mid-1890s, the O’odham people lost the ability to farm successfully in the desert. With that loss came the loss of their agricultural heritage, their food supply, their economy, their health, much of their culture and language and, most disastrously, their supply of seeds for traditional, desert-adapted crops. We had quite a discussion, as I was unfamiliar with the tepary bean, and wasn’t sure how we could fit them into our diminutive farm.  But Nina persisted, and I ended up leaving the conference with a small bag of beans in my pocket!

As The Crazy Chile Farm begins its fifth growing season, we can look back over a myriad of events and changes.  We have increased our growing surface from 4,000 to 10,000 square feet. We have gained access to a team of Clydesdales to grade and disc our two fields. A greenhouse has been added so we can grow our own seedlings. Last year’s chile crop was a record…almost exactly 800 pounds. Jim Soper has re-designed and improved our irrigation system. New equipment has enhanced our production efficiency. Donations of new power equipment have enabled us to better handle weed control and soil preparation. And most importantly, we have not only paid for our own farm expenses, we have been able to use a significant portion of the revenue we generate to fund an extraordinary number of outreach programs…food grants, public school programs and supplies, disaster relief, a women’s shelter and ESL language training for immigrants. Yet nothing has proven to be more important to our growth, our direction, and our ability to love and support our neighbors as Jesus has mandated, as that little bag of seeds that Nina gave us.

Since then, we have learned that the demand for indigenous seeds among the Native communities of Arizona is significantly higher than we first anticipated. And we also realized that we lack sufficient square footage of crop space to have much of an impact by ourselves. After much discussion and prayer, however, we did come up with a solution: Chile is our bread and butter. But crops of chile have to be rotated on a regular basis, so both of our two fields cannot be used for chile at the same time. A simple solution presented itself. We decided that one field would grow chile, and the other would be used to grow indigenous seed crops. Furthermore, we grew enough seeds from Nina’s little bag, that we were able to “share” our crop by initiating partnerships with other small growers to join us in increasing the volume. Then, the program literally exploded. Seeds of other crops were given to us by the Ajo Center (T.O. 60-Day corn and native squash). Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson provided even more seeds (Yoeme Blue corn), under a bulk seed exchange program. The resulting grow-outs we did in 2018 gave us enough inventory that we have been able to deliver significant amounts to the Tohono O’odham Community. We also have enough seeds that we have been able to form even more partnerships. We now work with the Ajo CSA, NMSU Ag. Research Center, several members of the Maricopa Community Gardeners, St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, the Episcopal Diocesan Council on Native American Ministry and, most recently, The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado. It appears to be working out! Yet without the support and the prayers of this congregation, none of this excitement would have been possible. So thank you, thank you, thank you. You all are the sweetest blessing of all. And if a stranger comes up to you and whispers in your ear “psst…ya want some seeds?” by all means say yes!

In Christ, Bill Robinson

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