More or less in the middle of New Mexico State University's new Student Centered Field Laboratory, nestled among the vegetable garden space, the cover crop research section and several rows of native corn varieties, is a plot of viney, pod-bearing plants that most New Mexicans would be hard-pressed to identify.
They are tepary beans, and they are a perennial research subject of Richard Pratt, head of NMSU's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. He feels that Southern New Mexico might be a good place to raise this crop that is well-suited to desert conditions.
He was out in the field in late November, comparing the various individual plants with each other and determining which ones had harvest-ready beans in the pods. He had uprooted several of the plants and was holding one of them, turning the 18-inch ball of dried stems and pods in his hands.
"I specifically pulled these out because they seemed to be maturing a little ahead of the other teparies," he said.
He has five different tepary varieties at the field lab, and one aspect of the project is to assess how they grow in the Mesilla Valley. The one he was inspecting comes from Chiapas, Mexico.
"There may be a little bit of genetic variation, so what we're doing is pulling out the plants that appear to be the best. This has a nice load of dry, ready-to-go beans inside."
He removed a few from their pods and held them in the palm of his hand, noting their well-defined mottling pattern that he said indicates tepary bean maturity.
According to Pratt, the tepary is typically a smaller bean than its "common bean" cousins, such as pinto and black bean. "But that may be part of the whole drought- and heat-resistance packages, not trying to do too much, if you will. Expending its energy carefully and not going overboard."
Tepary was a traditional crop for the indigenous inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert of what is now northern Mexico and southern Arizona. In fact, the Tohono O'odham people of southern Arizona were previously known as the Papago, apparently a mispronunciation by the Spanish of the native term for "tepary eaters."
It was actually in Arizona that Pratt became interested in teparies. He earned both a bachelor's and a master's degree at the University of Arizona in the 1970s. One of his inspirations was a University of Arizona Agricultural Experiment Station bulletin, "Southwestern Beans and Teparies," originally published in 1912 by a professor, G.F. Freeman.
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."
Healthy food choice
He and two colleagues published an important paper about this work in 2006, while he was employed at Ohio State University.
A challenge Pratt is poised to address with local colleagues is the susceptibility tepary seems to have to certain viral pathogens, such as bean common mosaic virus infection. Bean samples from the field lab are among those he is sending to a University of Arizona virologist colleague for testing. It is important to know that his seed stocks are BCMV free before he shares them with colleagues elsewhere.
"I am also working with other researchers in the area to develop a collaborative proposal aimed at eliminating accumulated viral
pathogens in heirloom (traditional) tepary and common bean varieties to foster their adoption and/or increased production," he said.
Expanding the production of tepary in ways that are of benefit to
producers and consumers is really what Pratt's tepary efforts are all about.
Part of his enthusiasm is health related. Tepary beans are now known to be higher in protein and fiber than common beans and to have a lower glycemic index, which suggests they are a healthy food choice for people prone to diabetes and heart disease.
Also on the health front, there have been suggestions that lectin, a chemical compound found in tepary, might have cancer-fighting properties.
Pratt sees teparies, one of several examples of traditional native foods of the region, as a weapon in the fight for better health and an improved economy in Native American communities.
He cites the example of a farming enterprise south of Phoenix that is marketing their tepary beans and tepary products as a traditional Native American food, with fair success.
"I think we can say that tepary is now sort of breaking out of the minor crops category and is receiving more attention from breeders and researchers," he said. "I think it has a pretty bright future."