Cornelius, left, and his assistant set up the Mobile Farmers
Market at Tucson's Native Seeds/SEARCH.
Dan Cornelius has been on the road for three months, buying
and selling the wares of North America's indigenous communities
from Louisiana to New Mexico and Arizona.
From tepary beans grown by the Tohono O'Odham people to chocolate
produced by the Chickasaw Nation, Native Americans are entering
the niche food market in many places.
Cornelius is a member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin and
the general manager of the Mobile
Farmers Market. The group believes traditional food production
can be part of an economic solution for high unemployment and other
Tucson's Native Seeds/SEARCH
was one of more than a dozen stops on his trip to reconnect tribal
trade routes and showcase Native American foods.
"We've got communities that are really remote and that don't
have good access to healthy traditional fresh foods," Cornelius
said. "So that's part of it, to help address those needs of the
food deserts and the food access, but also to help tribal producers
expand their market access."
About 23 percent of all Native American families earn income
that falls below the poverty line, according to the latest report
from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Mobile Farmers Market displays a variety of products from
Minnesota-grown wild rice to red chile powder and dried corn.
Many families grow crops, such as blue corn for their own consumption
without realizing they could sell the excess for profit, according
"We've got these great resources, these great products and we
just needed more support to help to move them, to distribute them,
to really reconnect the tribal trade," Cornelius said.
He said he believes there is a national market for traditionally
However, one challenge for the Mobile Farmers Market is pricing.
Some products cost much more than their grocery store counterparts.
For instance, half a pound of wild rice is about $7.
"For a lot of the products we have, they're traditionally processed,
traditionally harvested, traditionally grown," Cornelius said. "There's
a lot of labor and time that goes into that."
Cornelius said there are a few tribal members who don't believe
in selling traditional foods to the general public, but he sees
food production as a sustainable economic resource.
"There's interest across the country," Cornelius said. "It's
not just about health it's about economic development. It's really
about maintaining our traditions."
Ramona and Terry Button are the kind of producers the Mobile
Farmers Market wants to connect with. They've farmed the land near
Sacaton, located on the Gila River Indian Reservation north of Tucson,
for 40 years.
The Buttons grow a variety of traditional crops including white
Sonoran wheat, Pima club wheat, garbanzo and tepary beans. The latter
were a staple for Southwestern tribes for centuries.
When the Buttons first started growing them, tepary beans had
all but disappeared from the diet of their relatives, who worried
they would soon be extinct.
"My father had some beans that we found in an old trunk and
so we started planting it," Ramona said.
The pair grows two varieties: the white bean, which is called
sto-toah bahf, and the brown beans, which are so-am bahf in the
Akimel O'Odham language. Both types are hearty legumes with high
levels of protein and fiber. The beans also have a low glycemic
index, which can help those with diabetes maintain an even blood-sugar
level, because as they digest the beans, glucose releases slowly.
Farms tepary beans on display at a Whole Foods Market store
For many years, Ramona
Farms' main customers were small ethnic grocers on the reservation.
Then the market changed in the 1980s and 90s as urbanization took
hold between Phoenix and Tucson.
"Big residential areas and the big grocery chains moved in and
they out-competed the smaller stores and those people folded up,"
Terry said. "The larger chains didn't recognize the significance
of the tepary beans to the O'Odham people."
With fewer outlets carrying their beans, the Buttons had to
cultivate a new market. Now their wares can be found at boutique
retailers, online and at a handful of Whole Foods Market grocery
"Trends for Whole Foods are maybe different from, you know,
the retail mall," said Darcy Landis, who coordinates local purchasing
for the store in Arizona and Nevada. "It's more heirloom grains.
How can we get people excited about food that our ancestors ate?"
Landis helped bring the Buttons' products to store shelves.
To pique interest in the bean they've held demonstrations and tastings
of tepary bean-inspired dishes, such as hummus and even brownies.
Despite the new opportunities, common crops, such as cotton,
wheat and alfalfa occupy the majority of the Button's farm. Making
a profit is ultimately the end goal, Terry said.
"We have to be able to sell the products that we raise," Terry
said. "Otherwise we are going to wind up like everybody else and
just selling corn to livestock producers and dairyman and whatnot,
instead of marketing the wholesome and traditional heritage foods
that we want to focus on."
Katherine Beckwith is part of a new customer base for heirloom
growers like the Buttons. She discovered tepary beans while road
tripping through Wilcox and came to Native Seeds/SEARCH to restock.
"I can't eat wheat and so I'm limited in what sorts of grains
I can eat," Beckwith said. "As far as cooking them, I don't know
if I do it the right way. I have my own way, just cooking them with
plenty of water."
While there, she also picked up a package of Minnesota-grown
wild rice from the Mobile Farmers Market.
"I think it's great to support small farmers and small groups,"
The Buttons hope the demand grows, so they can sow more beans
and less cotton.
Mobile Famers Market
Mobile Famers Market is an innovative approach aiming to strengthen
the regional American Indian food economy by enhancing the areas
food distribution network. A fuel-efficient cargo van will allow
transportation of product across the region, as well as providing
support to start farmers markets in interested Tribal communities.
The nonprofit mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH is to conserve and
promote arid-adapted crop diversity to nourish a changing world.
We work within the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico
to strengthen regional food security.