New Mexico has long been rooted in agricultural tradition. The state is known for the high quality alfalfa it produces and markets nationwide. It's also known as cattle country where beef and dairy production are key components to the state's agricultural success.
New Mexico produces apples, onions, lettuce, peanuts, corn and cotton. But New Mexico's green chile has long been the pride and joy native food crop of consumers, grown in time-honored tradition by a handful of dedicated chile growers, most of who raise their spicy crop in around the Hatch and Mesilla Valleys of the Rio Grande River Basin of south-central New Mexico.
Rich in flavor, there is an entire chile culture rooted into New Mexico life. Each fall, chile growers and vendors occupy roadside stands and roast chiles in parking lots across the state. Just about every restaurant serves the spicy treat and with almost every dish they serve.
But for several years now the famed New Mexico chile has fallen on hard times. The availability of water may be the primary reason chile acres have declined, but it's certainly not the only problem. Harvesting chile is challenging as well because it is labor intensive. Easily bruised, chile must be handpicked, and thanks to tough immigration laws, there are fewer farm laborers available to harvest not only chile but the onions that also are grown in the same region.
But perhaps one of biggest threats to chile farming is the competition for water by the high-quality, high-value pecans grown in the region that have taken the Valley by storm in recent years. In New Mexico, pecans are big business, especially the high-value varieties expertly grown in the state.
Pecan trees love and thrive on water, and the fruit of the tree can be mechanically harvested. But the winning advantage for the New Mexico nut is the price they bring at market, especially foreign markets like China and India and parts of the Middle East. So when dry times hit the state over a decade ago and irrigation allotments began to shrink, many growers opted to grow crops that were easier to grow and in high demand, like pecans, that could be grown without a great deal of farm labor required.
Declining chile acres
According to USDA and New Mexico Agriculture Department figures, the 2017 chile crop declined from the previous year, a trend that dates back 10 years or more. A 12 percent reduction in chile acres was experienced this past season compared to the 2016 season, or about 63,000 tons of chile this past season compared with nearly 70,000 tons in 2016. The number of chile acres also declined this last season.
In fact, chile acres have, for the most part, declined considerably since peaking in 2005 at 17,500 acres. In 2007, for example, only 50,000 tons were harvested, but production levels have leveled out and remained somewhat steady each year since then at around the 60,000 acre mark.
As far as total value of the 2017 crop, estimates indicate it was down from last year to about $44.5 million.
Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University, says other crops, like pecans, have been competing with the chile and onion crops produced each year in the Basin region. While chile producers still receive a reduced allotment of water from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the growing number of pecan farms have further reduced water availability for the chile crop, and combined with the farm labor issue, the decline in chile production shouldn't come as a surprise.
Walker has been working on developing new chile hybrids that are more drought tolerant and are also made for easy stem removal, a step in the production process necessary for chile contracts with processors. With two years of trials under her belt, Walker says she believes the new varieties will help to bring back chile acres over time.
Also, Walker has been working with others on developing mechanical harvesters that pick chile with less bruising. Once those types of equipment are fine-tuned and readily available, there will be less need for manual labor.
State officials say there is no real cause for concern that New Mexico’s favorite food will decline to a point where fresh or processed chile will become a thing off the past. Chile tradition runs too high and deep, and the demand for chile too high for that to happen.
But troubling droughts will also remain a problem for chile producers, and this year so far is proving to be exceptionally dry.