Farm History and Mission


This is the story of the Crazy Chile Farm at Transfiguration. We are a small, self-financed, self-sustaining non-profit farm operating under the 501(c)3 tax provisions of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. This story, however, is dedicated to the Onk Akimel O’odham (the Salt River Pima People). For over 1000 years the Pima were the active stewards of the land where our church now stands—until our ancestors took it away from them. Bill Robinson, Manager, The Crazy Chile Farm 2021


Back in the fall of 2014, The Episcopal Church of The Transfiguration was exploring some different ways of addressing poverty related issues in our neighborhood. In our part of Arizona, in East Maricopa and West Pinal Counties, underemployment, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness are endemic. We are less than 12 miles from the uber-rich communities that rim the north side of the Valley of the Sun, yet here, at least one in four children, one in five adults, and one in six seniors go to bed hungry. Our parish is aging; a majority are seasonally absent. Many have fixed incomes. Yet there is a passionate commitment and intent to help reduce these appalling hunger statistics. To that end, Transfiguration consistently supports diverse programs, at food banks, elementary school programs, soup kitchens, women’s shelters and more. But, this support can easily exhaust our limited financial resources. So what could we do??


The short version of this story is that Transfiguration had some fallow land, and it was decided to use about 5000 square feet of that land to grow and market a commercial agricultural crop. Profits would be used to pay our own expenses enhance our support for community relief in our neighborhood. Our selected crop was chile pepper. Chile? Not as far fetched as you might think. Spicy food is a trending item in shops and restaurants all over the country, and specialty varieties of the two most popular species of chile (Capsicum annuum, and C. frutescens) are in very high demand.

In terms of bio-history, chile is a late arrival to the American Southwest. Yes, there is one native variety of chile (the chiltepine) that grows wild in parts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. But commercially viable varieties of chile that have been cultivated by Native Meso-Americans for millennia didn’t make it this far north until 1598. In that year, a Spanish colonizing expedition lead by Don Juan de Oñate, left Santa Barbara, Mexico crossed the Rio Grande near what is now El Paso and established the town of San Gabriel at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers, just north of present-day Española, New Mexico. The colonists, in addition to their personal belongings, brought a number of agricultural products that had never before been seen, let alone grown in the Western Hemisphere before the Spanish arrived. Some of those products, like wheat, barley, rice, lettuce, onions, cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, and horses, forever changed the lives and the diets of future generations of North Americans. Chile seeds from southern Mexico were also on the colonist’s supply manifest. Chile was first encountered by the Spanish in the Caribbean, and during their conquest of the Aztecs in 1519. These uniquely Western Hemisphere plants were eventually propagated on every continent touched by Spanish Imperial forces and traders.

The chile seeds that we planted in Transfiguration’s little farm back in March 2015 are really quite special. They are from Chimayó, New Mexico, a farming community known for its unique chile, and the site of an ancient and Holy shrine visited by thousands of pilgrims during Holy Week. Not without coincidence, Chimayó sits in the picturesque Sangre de Cristo foothills overlooking the Rio Grande less than 25 miles from the site of Oñate’s colony. Given the historic isolation of Chimayó, it is quite likely that the seeds, planted at our farm here in Arizona, are direct and unadulterated descendants of the seeds brought by the first European colonists over four hundred years ago.


Botanists and agronomists refer to both Native American and “introduced” plants that have thrived in a limited location for centuries, without artificial genetic alteration, as “landrace” varieties.Franciscan Friars who accompanied the Oñate expedition used seeds and plants as evangelical tools in their efforts to convert the local Native American people. In one of the unexpected consequences of those efforts, descendent plants of the original colonists’ stock of chile seeds are still found today (genetically
unchanged) in a number of remote Spanish villages and Native American Pueblos. Today each village and Pueblo that grows these landrace chiles takes great pride in their ancient homegrown plants -- so much so that they now name the chiles after their towns or some locally distinguishing geography. Hence, we have multiple Spanish names for what is essentially the same variety of plant-- Alcalde, Velarde, Jemez, Española, Chimayó, etc. In keeping with this tradition, and since we are growing the same landrace variety in an isolated new location, we gave our chiles a new name that will forever relate them to the land on which they are being grown.


Rising just to the north of The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration are the rugged, Saguaro- whiskered slopes of the Goldfield Mountains. Mountain Road, which forms our eastern boundary, begins as an arroyo high up on those slopes. When the monsoon rains visit us each summer, Mountain Road can become a raging stream; a dramatic reminder of how our local neighborhood mountains can influence our lives and activities. Our chile farm receives an even more elemental influence from the Goldfields -- the soil. Like wine grapes, the taste and character of chile peppers is determined, in part, by the composition of the soil in which it is grown. For untold millennia, the metamorphic and volcanic mass of our northern skyline has been slowly eroding. Over time, great walls of granite, layers of explosively deposited tuff and breccia, and ancient volcanic inclusions of basalt, inexorably decompose into gravel, sand and dust. These small pieces of the mountain are then carried down the arroyos by the summer rains and are deposited in the flat basins below. Our chile field is in such a basin, and we have given our chiles a trade name that reflects both the heritage of our product and the geology of our location.

 
For us, the name is an expression of our thanksgiving for the excellent soil given to us by the gracious God who created the Goldfield Mountains. Without genetic modification, the plants we grow in Arizona from New Mexican Chimayó Chile seeds have taken on the character of new soil and a different climate. Thus a new landrace variety has been born and we have decided name our chiles Campo Dorado— Spanish for Goldfield.

History and geology aside, The Campo Dorado chiles grown at The Crazy Chile Farm have done very well. Seedlings are put in the ground in late February, and harvest begins in May. Ripe pods are picked weekly through the summer and fall until the second or third week of December. A program has been worked out for an efficient method of drying, prepping, grinding and packaging the chiles. Revenue from the sale of chile powder, in the first three growing seasons, covered all of our annual expenses, and profits from those sales have covered the financing of 100% of the meals for a 16 bed women’s shelter in Apache Junction, selected school supplies for a local elementary school, thousands of dollars in grants to the feeding agencies of two food banks (26,000 meals financed to date), ESL training for refugees in our area, 2 sewing machines for a Hispanic women’s embroidery group in Douglas, AZ, who use their craft to raise money to feed their neighbors, and funding for an orphanage in Honduras.


In 2017 The Farm combined its own resources with those of another funding program called A Million Meals for our Neighbors, to provide funding for emergency food for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. By working with the Feeding America affiliate in Austin, Feeding Texas, we provided over 27,500 pounds of food directly to the evacuated!
In the winter of 2017/18 we doubled the size of our growing surface, from 5,000 to 10,000 sq. ft....with another 1,000 square feet between the two fields. This center section was used for a greenhouse, compost structures, and pollen barriers to keep crops in Field #1 and Field #2 from “out-crossing.” With a John Deer Tractor provided by Bob DeSpiegliare and a team of Clydesdales belonging to Laura Ward, we were able to rip, disc and grade an old gravel parking lot into a serviceable field that produced over 800 pounds of chiles in 2018. The following year we used the same field to grow seed crops for Native American Tribes trying to re-establish traditional agriculture. Starting with a small seed exchange with the Tohono O’odham via the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the program has grown to include six Tribal Nations in three western States and four partner growers in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. One of the endangered varieties of seed we grow, Yoeme Blue corn, is vital to the lives and cultural traditions of the Yaqui People. With the help of partner growers, we hope to bring this variety back from the edge of extinction.


The years 2016 through 2019 marked a period of extraordinary growth at the Crazy Chile Farm. We expanded our agricultural outreach to the Tribal Nations and Communities of Arizona and the 32,000 Urban Native Americans serviced by our partner organization, Native Health. We celebrated that growth each October by hosting the Annual Chile Harvest Festival at Transfiguration. With the help of many people in the parish and our neighbors, we provided produce vendors, horse drawn wagon rides, local art, campus tours, and live music ranging from children’s choirs to opera singers and mariachi groups. But then, in 2020, COVID-19 hit.


COVID-19’s arrival in Arizona, and the resulting limits on protocols for gatherings, instituted by the Diocese, State, and Federal Agencies, required some operational changes. We stopped having our pre- work breakfasts in the Parish Hall on Mondays, staff and volunteers were required to wear masks, and bottles of sanitizers were stationed on worktables in the processing area. We also began receiving a number of distress calls from Native American communities and support services. Attending to those “urgent needs” formed our agenda for the year. What follows is a sequential outreach report for 2021:



Native Health in Mesa sent up the first red flag as their Tuesday feeding program experienced a sharp increase in demand. Using proceeds from the 2019 crop we purchased 100 lbs. of Pima Wheat from Ramona Farms and 100 lbs. of un-milled Navajo/Hopi blue maize rom the Ute Mountain Utes. Using our own milling equipment and volunteer labor from Native Health, both were milled and delivered for the food distribution.


Immediately afterward, we were notified of a restaurant closure, and we were able to salvage 550 lbs. of fresh food. This was also delivered to Native Health. Then there were two considerably larger projects: The delivery of 8 lbs. of maize, beans, squash, and chile seeds, from the Crazy Chile Farm and our partner growers, to Havasupai farmers, Covid-sequestered at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The seeds were delivered by the USPS mule train, down the 8.5-mile trail to Supai Village. In midsummer, we joined forces with Good Shepherd Cave Creek and St. Peters Litchfield Park to collect 2500 lbs. of food and personal supplies for the Hualapai Tribe in NW Arizona. Mules were not required for this delivery. Angel Flight West in Santa Monica CA provided 12 small planes who picked up the cargo at Falcon Field in Mesa for the flight to Hualapai.

 

Then we received orders from United Food Bank for 900 1.5 lb. bags of blue cornmeal and another order for 325 bags from Native Health. The UFB order was for delivery to White Mtn. Apache and the Native Health was to support a televised Native food cooking contest for urban Native Americans in the Phoenix metro area. We ordered 2000 lbs. of blue maize kernels from the Ute Mountain Ute Farms in Towaoc CO, and our volunteer farmers ground and packaged the meal at the Crazy Chile Farm over a two-month period. And so it went for the entire year; 450 pounds of squash for the Tohono O’odham, and seed deliveries to the Navajo, Yaqui, and San Carlos Apache. By year’s end it had become very clear that our mission, as it were, was to provide both indigenous food, seeds, and agricultural support the Native American Nations and communities of the Southwest. That, in fact, has become the Mission Statement of the Crazy Chile Farm going forward.


Volunteer help is always welcome. Most of the farm work and processing is done on Monday’s beginning at 7:00am (in summer), 8:00am (in winter). Coffee and a light repast are provided, COVID permitting. Farm products (red, green, and chipotle chile powder), blue cornmeal, native squash, and Mexican oregano are available for retail from July through December. Call the Transfiguration Church Office for details. Thanks to the work of many people, revenue from The Crazy Chile Farm is enhancing our community’s outreach to the hungry, the abused, and the unfortunate. Four hundred years ago the Franciscans used chile as part of their own outreach ministry. With your continued support, the Friar’s unique approach to evangelism will have come full circle.

Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 23:01

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