It’s assumed most Native American communities are adept at farming grains and produce. So you can imagine how shocked Robert Mirabal, a two-time Grammy-winning musician of Taos, N.M., and actor in the 2009 Lifetime film Georgia O’Keefe, was to discover the opposite.
Instead of sitting back and watching the demise of the community in which he grew up, the Native American, who now lives in a home with his wife and three daughters at the foot of the Taos Mountains, just outside of Taos Pueblo, N.M., did something about it. Along with retired psychologist Nelson Zink, he founded Tiwa Farms in 2010, a project designed to reintroduce farming to those who live in Taos Pueblo.
“It’s kind of sad,” he admits, about the lost art of farming in such an agriculturally rich region that can boast centuries of farming history. This area is also a major part of U.S. history; here, Native Americans once harvested corn for rain dances. Now you can buy corn at a neon-lit grocery store that’s just a short car ride away. “When we stop farming, we lose our connection to the past and to the future. Rather than talking about a rain dance, maybe we know what it is like to be in a drought instead of just going to the supermarket,” he says. “Corn is our culture, and if we deny that element, we deny our culture.”
Tiwa Farm’s mission is two-fold: to teach Native Americans how to farm and to also reintroduce heirloom seeds. That means pumpkins, squash, blue and white corn, beans, and rice are more likely to be planted than tomatoes or peppers. As early as the 1920s, explains Mirabal, his community in northern New Mexico received money from the federal government to purchase horse-drawn plows. “In the pueblos, we were in the heyday of our farming.”
The advent of machinery in later decades put those horses to a grinding halt. People went off to school, to the War or moved away from the pueblos for other reasons. Those horses, says Mirabal, died “because people did not know how to care for them, and a modern lifestyle has made us more sedentary — sitting in front of the TV; and instead of walking someplace, we sit in the car,” he says.
Tiwa Farm is a virtual project, meaning the farmland is scattered in a 3-mile radius throughout the community, from small garden plots to large, 2-acre farm fields. Mirabal and Zinc got started by purchasing an old tractor and plowing the fields behind many families’ homes. “It’s up to them to teach their children and their families,” he says. “Once it’s plowed, it’s up to them.”
Yet, Mirabal is anything but hands-off. He acts as a farming counselor to local families who want to turn their acreage into sustenance. He also co-published, with Zink, a book available through his website: Believe in the Corn: Manual for Puebloan Corn Growing (2011).
He’s had his own farming struggles, too. This year, due to a drought, the corn crops did not do so well. He also attempted to grow watermelons. “Then the monsoons came in August and created havoc,” he explains. Focusing on the positive, he says, “It’s rare for someone at a 7,000-square-foot elevation to grow watermelons, but I did pretty good [sic] and was able to save some seeds.”
In time, Mirabal hopes to establish seed exchanges with other pueblos and reservations in the Southwest. Right now, Taos Pueblo is the only pueblo growing red beans. Melon varieties are different in each pueblo. “Ancient seeds are what we’re doing,” says Mirabal. “Hopefully in time there will be a larger commitment — a seed bank or farmers market.”