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Hand-roasting Pima 60-Day Corn is hard and expensive, but essential to preserve heirloom products

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Terry Button scoops up coals, sifting through a nearby fire, shoveling them onto an open mesquite grill. He married Ramona Button of the Gila River Indian Community. They started farming in 1974 on her family’s 10-acre allotment. 

Now, he oversees a handful of Native laborers roasting ears of heirloom corn — harvesting for two cherished seasonal products, Huun Ga’i and Ga’ivsa — grown only twice a year. 

At Ramona Farms near Sacaton, capital of the GRIC in Pinal County, they’re gathering one of the world’s fastest growing types of maize. The Pima 60-Day Corn is taken almost immediately off the stalk. 

“It was planted on July 17th — 67 days right now since it was planted, but we can’t let them get hard,” said Button. “We have to cook it when you can spray the milk out of the kernel. See that, it’s in the milk stage. And that’s what they’re looking for.” 

Hundreds of fresh corn cobs are roasted until turning a caramel hue and tossed into metal trash bins. On this sweltering day in late September, more than three of those cans were filled to the brim. 

But their hard work wasn’t done yet. 

Button explained they plan to roast one more time this year: “We just pick whatever is ready and roast it up. There’s still some more corn out in the field. It’s not quite mature enough.”

Huun Ga’i is a traditional product from removing whole kernels off the cob, often used in soups, stews or salads. Whereas for Ga’ivsa, “We take the same product,” Button explains, “They shell it for Huun Ga’i and then we run it through a stone mill and we don’t grind it fine. We crack it, and then we sift the chaff off there and package that.” 

Fracturing the once whole kernels as few as four or as many as eight times.

This chewy puree packing sweet-fire flavors is similar to porridge or risotto. It can be simply prepared with a mixture of water and butter, salt and pepper. This is a highly sought-after traditional treat. Button admitted: “And we do run out, the demand is pretty high.”

It’s certainly a favorite among customers, one that Ramona Farms typically sells out in short order, despite being their most expensive product. 

Brandy Button, their eldest daughter, rattles off an updated price sheet for Ga’ivsa at their farm office located right off State Route 87. Packages of Ga’ivsa cost between $20 and $90 depending on the size. “$20 dollars for eight ounces; 1.5 pounds is $55, and 3.5 pounds is $90.”

Each ear of corn is harvested by hand from their irrigated fields. Their staff spends half the day outdoors from before sunrise until the early afternoon roasting the crop. 

Once staples among the Akimel O’odham, community elders remembered these delicacies with great nostalgia — returning to a time when many families tended to their own plots of Pima 60-Day Corn and roasted together.  

That cultural hunger turned into a demand that Ramona Farms has met, at least seasonally.

“In the springtime, because of lengthening days, the corn grows more slowly from April to June,” said Button. “In the fall, you have shortening days, and it accelerates its growth. We plant late July to the first of August, and then we harvest it in November.”

Arid and desert adapted crops mature rapidly.

Andrea Carter is the AG outreach and education manager at the Tucson-based nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH, which conserves and sells heirloom seeds. Among the 500-plus unique ascensions of corn stored in their seedbank, few compare for how fast they sprout.

“Having a corn that’s mature in 60 days is particularly valuable in the Southwest when it comes to water saving,” said Carter. “If it’s two months of watering verse, three, four months, five months, that corn can be in the ground for, that’s really huge.”

Taking advantage of seasonal moisture that comes from Arizona’s rainy monsoon season between June and September, also helps in “making the most of it” during this wetter time of the year.

“When you’re low on water, that ability to grow quickly during your periods of moisture, which out here would be during the monsoon season, is so special and so important,” she added. “Not having a plant that you have to keep going past the monsoon season is really valuable.”

And the fact that Ramona Farms can plant this corn variety in the spring and amid the monsoon underscores to Carter “how great this crop is, and how well-suited it is to this area.” 

“Why it’s still 60-Day Corn, is because Ramona Farms is growing this crop, and saving the seeds of it, planting it again,” said Carter. “And that’s what it takes to keep these really remarkably desert-adapted crops alive and available for future generations.”

Back at Ramona Farms, the Buttons have fed families at the Gila River Indian Reservation, across Indian Country and even beyond with their agribusiness for almost half a century.

And they’ll keep packing roasted Pima corn on their shelves to “bring our traditions to your table,” as their slogan reads, for generations to come — so long as Terry Button and the rest of his roasting team don’t “Burn them up.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.