As the publication made clear, Freeman and his colleagues understood then that teparies were tolerant of drought and heat, matured quickly, were comparatively resistant to pests, and could produce more than one crop per year. These were obvious advantages to the people who developed them, and presumably would be for the area's commercial farmers of the time, as well.

The value of tepary, a legume, in restoring nitrogen to the soil was also recognized, as well as its ability to thrive in the more saline soils that result from irrigation.

All of which explains why Pratt is convinced that tepary also would do well in Southern New Mexico's arid environment.

The field lab provides a small space for Pratt to assess tepary's viability under local conditions and he will set aside the seeds from the most successful plants. Selection of the more robust and faster-maturing plants is a traditional breeding practice, an approach Pratt favors, particularly when working with native crops like beans and maize.

"It might be micro-environmental variation or it might be genetic variation, but the only way you find out if it's genetic variation is to keep selecting, so that's what we've done here," he said, referring to the plants he had pulled out of the field.

Pratt also sees tepary's potential as a green manure, a term for plants grown between regular crops and plowed under to enhance soil health.

Pratt has been involved in tepary breeding work with colleagues at other institutions and reports that a couple of them have just released new varieties with enhanced heat and drought tolerance.

"Another aspect of what I've been doing over the years is crossing the teparies with the common beans that we are familiar with, the pinto varieties, the black beans and so on, and trying to transfer some of these desirable characteristics from tepary into common bean," he said. "It's a very long-term proposition."