Yesterday was the kind of winter day that makes snowbirds flock to Arizona, and makes those of us who live here year-round (almost) forget the blazing summers. It was a perfect day for gardening, and for harvesting the last of the tepary beans, a traditional crop of the native Tohono O'odham people, who have lived here for centuries and whose vast reservation stretches from a few miles below Tucson south to the Mexican border and even farther west, a total of 4,453.307 square miles. Long before development sucked away much of the water and global warming made it so much harder to live off the land, they farmed here. The tepary beans they've raised for centuries (and still raise on the tribe's cooperative farm) have been shown to be useful against diabetes, a gift of Western culture that came along with white flour, white sugar and sugary soft drinks and other foods that have replaced much of the traditional diet, especially since World War II. The beans are higher in protein than most other legumes and their complex carbohydrates help maintain steady, healthy blood sugar levels.
Tepary beans are an ideal desert crop. They need very little water; the manager of the tribe's cooperative farm told me a few years ago that they only irrigated them twice during the summer, though that may have changed since then, as the last few summers have gotten progressively hotter and drier. They thrive in the heat; in fact, they're a traditional monsoon crop, planted with the first of the summer storms. They also come in a number of different varieties: this picture shows brown, speckled blue, and black, all of which I've grown in my own garden. For a couple of years I let them trail over the ground in masses of tough, wiry vines, much tougher than those of any other bean or pea I've encountered. This year Joe built a splendid trellis that may outlive us both, which made the beans much easier to harvest. It's important to keep them picked so the pods don't split and release them into the mulch where they'll be lost (but not forever, since next year they'll be back--they're still quite close to their hardy wild ancestors, I suspect).
I'm sure the tribe has at least one bean combine, but for the small-scale home gardener, this is a very labor-intensive crop, and that's why I've decided this summer's was my last planting of teparies. I can buy them from the tribe at local farmers' markets (along with amazing melons during the season) or from Native Seed Search (www.nativeseeds.org), a locally based organization dedicated to maintaining traditional seed varieties of many kinds that are adapted to the southwest. NSS has a special diabetes project to promote the use of tepary beans and other native crops among the tribes.
The last teparies I bought (some to eat and some for this year's planting) were $4 a pound and well worth it, considering the work of raising and picking them and cleaning them of the dried pods, etc., as well as their superior nutritional value. Although they are smaller than, for example, pinto or black beans, they take longer to cook, but once cooked you can use them as you would those other beans in pretty much any recipe calling for plain cooked beans, and you'll have the satisfactions of taste, a healthy meal, and knowing you've done your bit to help preserve another traditional (and environmentally friendly and organically raised, since insect pests don't seem to be a problem) crop against the onslaught of the so-called progress of monoculture agribusiness.