Have you ever counted the kernels on a single cob of corn? Each seed is secured within a meandering row running the length of the cob. And sure, you could count each kernel, but knowing the number would not describe one cob of corn any better than simply knowing the taste of it, or feeling its rhythmic surface in your hand.
This is a tale of a few of those kernels of corn. There is no single story of corn in New Mexico. From an agricultural perspective, corn is so integral to the mythology, landscape, agricultural and aesthetic landscape of New Mexico that it could take multiple shelves of the library to tell that story in a truly comprehensive way. Instead, we are going to travel the route of one row of kernels on one cob of corn, to see where those stories lead.
The seeds of this particular story were first planted over three decades ago. Today, just minutes from Taos Plaza, on a surprisingly chilly mid-May morning, native corn seed is being planted in rows. The seed falls from a 37-year-old piece of machinery called a “planter” (affectionately named Romeo) attached to a 38-year-old John Deere named Moses, driven by a young man from Arkansas. Lifelong farmer David Frazier likes to name his machines because he looks forward to a long working relationship with them. His young dog Critter runs alongside, always with David in her sights…except perhaps when she sees a rabbit.
According to Roxanne Swentzel, in her book The Pueblo Food Experience Cookbook, “the earliest evidence for corn in the Southwest was found near modern-day Zuni pueblo and was dated to 2100 BCE. That corn, a domesticated descendent from a distant wild relative of MesoAmerica, was adapted over millennia to survive with limited moisture and short growing seasons of pueblo country.”
In more recent history, growing corn was a prominent aspect of life among the Southwestern pueblos along the Rio Grande. In their book Believe in the Corn, Robert Mirabal and Nelson Zink state that a century ago, there were nearly 50,000 Native American farmers across the country. That number has been in steady decline since World War Two for a number of reasons–the war effort, wage labor, Housing and Urban Development housing, commodity foods and fast foods—“by now the number of native corn growers in the Southwest is fewer than a couple hundred.”
But there is a wave of grassroots action working to turn back the tide. Organizations like Ancestral Lands in Acoma, the Santa Ana Department of Agriculture, the Tesuque Pueblo Seed Bank, the Flowering Tree Permaculture Institute of Santa Clara and Tiwa Farms of Taos, among others, are actively working to preserve water rights, revive living traditions of cultivation, and reverse chronic health issues. Independently and together, they are bringing corn back home.
As these movements gain traction, they are slow to cultivate, and pueblos still have need to supplement their stores of corn, meal and pollen for both food and ceremony. That’s where Bill Baker, known across New Mexico as “the Corn Man,” comes in.
For the past 33 years, Bill’s been raising native Cochiti corn and returning annually to sell directly to many pueblos. It all began with a nativity scene Christmas present Bill purchased for his wife at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The figurines were made by well-known Cochiti potter Mary Martin. The piece was such a hit with Bill’s wife that she wanted to add to the scene. In the quest to find more figurines, Bill and his wife eventually met, and over the years became close friends with, Mary and her husband Bill Martin. At the same time, the Cochiti fields had been flooded following the construction of the Cochiti Dam, effectively halting agricultural production. When Bill Martin learned that Bill Baker had raised hay on his land west of Denver, Colo., Martin gave Baker 40 pounds of native Cochiti blue corn seed, and asked him to try his hand at growing that seed.
What began as something of an experiment between friends grew from there. That first crop didn’t fare terribly well, but Baker returned with the yield he could salvage. Martin was thrilled with the quality of the corn, and sent more seed back with Baker. Over the decades, Baker continued to grow the seed, adding Cochiti white, red corn from Acoma, yellow from Taos and sweet corn from Hopi to the mix, and began bringing corn back not only to Cochiti, but reaching out, forging relationships with nearly 20 other pueblos. To this day, Baker continues to grow and sell around 23 tons of corn seed annually. But at almost 80, Bill Baker has been looking for someone to carry on this tradition.
Enter serendipity. Arkansas native David Frazier first traveled to Taos to spend time with a childhood friend. As has happened with many of us who have relocated to New Mexico, David found himself returning to Taos again and again, drawn back by a growing sense of connection to the land and the people he knew there.
Born and raised on a large farm in Arkansas, David hadn’t intended to farm in Taos. It was simply that growing a garden is what he did with his time when not working–it came naturally. He was intrigued that even with a significantly shorter growing season than he knew from the south, with the strength of the sun at high altitude and so few overcast days, he produced a great abundance from that little half-acre garden plot. He was hooked.
Using Google Earth to locate a piece of land well situated at the end of an acequia, he found and purchased land with good water rights, and took out a small business loan to start his farm. The first year was an utter disaster. With crops plagued by prairie dogs, David ended up donating what survived the infestation to Ancianos (a community program that provides services to the elderly in Taos) and church groups. For David, his passion for farming goes hand in hand with service to the community–that’s simply how he sees his place in the world. Fazed, but not given to giving up, he persisted and planted again the following year. In that time, he also met two men, now close friends and partners, who changed the course of his path.
It was Bill Baker’s pickup truck—loaded down with burlap sacks of seed, parked in a local restaurant lot—that caught David’s eye. Something about it struck him, and after driving a few miles away, he honored his intuition, turned his own truck around, and went back to find the owner of that weighed-down truck. Bill and David struck up a conversation, perhaps recognizing something of themselves in the eyes of the other, and that conversation is still going. Bill persuaded David to join him on one of his trips to a pueblo to deliver corn. These trips can last days, and often include meals in homes, not unlike a feast day. David was so moved by the transformative experience that before they left the pueblo, he had committed to becoming the “new Corn Man,” carrying on the tradition started by Bill Baker. That was a couple years ago, and the transition will take time as David learns to finesse the short, high-altitude growing season of Taos, and Bill continues introducing David to the folks he knows on the various pueblos.
During his short time in Taos, David also met a man named Jason Seck. Formerly a creative producer for the Muppets in New York, Jason came to Taos with his wife Jennifer Hart, a Taos native and owner of the beloved Love Apple restaurant. Originally from Detroit, he’s the kind of guy who’s always got a lot of projects in play. In addition to being a husband, father of three, and having his own small creative agency, he’s got a deep penchant for supporting locally made goods. That’s how Taos Family Farms came to be in 2014.
While learning the ropes of growing with Bill, David began spending hours with Jason coming up with ways to create a product line of artisanal, locally grown corn products for resale–white and blue corn meal, white corn seed and this writer’s favorite: old-school, pueblo-style “parched corn.”
Any modern farmer will tell you it’s a constant challenge to earn a living with small-scale farming–and getting creative with retailing farm-based products, in addition to fresh produce, helps make it more sustainable. For those who frequent the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, think of the Kimchi from Mi Young’s Farm, or Boxcar’s medicinal vinegars. Taos Family Farms is meant to run parallel to David’s production for the pueblos, to help make being the next ‘Corn Man’ more viable.
Their first point of purchase is at the newly opened “little apple,” Manzanita Market. Located at the entrance to the Taos Plaza, this gem is the newest sibling to the restaurant Love Apple, offering baked goods, light fare and locally made products from ceramics to illustrated cards to parched corn, meal and seed from Taos Family Farms. In Santa Fe, Modern General is now carrying the line as well, and for those based further away, you can source these products from their website.
David would be the first to say that becoming the next Corn Man is an incredibly ambitious goal, and any future in farming is always subject to the currents of weather, markets and the mechanical integrity of “mature” John Deere tractors. But this is one of the many strands of the story of corn today in New Mexico. What began with the stone-ground maize of the ancestral pueblo diet arrives today in a slice of delicious blue-corn bread on the community table in a beautifully adorned and light-filled café in Taos. And of course, this story doesn’t end here. It’s just one chapter, to be continued, like the seeds from this fall’s harvest yield next season’s crop of corn.
Story by Gabriella Marks