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Heat wave cooks chile peppers

"In terms of red chile, we're probably about two weeks behind schedule because of the weather in late June and July," said Vince Hernandez, production coordinator for Biad Chili, a 40-year-old chile processing facility 10 miles north of Las Cruces.

Indeed, if any one factor stood out during the current growing season, it was the punishing sun that roasted the state's chile plants. Almost everywhere in the region, temperatures cooked the record books during a string of 100-degree days. "The plants spent more time trying to keep cool than they did growing." Hernandez said.

Dave Layton, agriculture manager at Deming-based Border Foods, considered the largest chile processing and packing company in the United States, added that high summer temperatures reduced "the [pod] wall thickness which means we're not seeing the yields that we saw last year."

What a difference a year makes. Last year produced a near perfect confluence of good weather, little disease and a strong market made it a banner time for pod producers. "It was one of our best years ever," said Paul Bosland, horticulture professor at New Mexico State University and director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute. And that brings us to this year's production. It's, well, average.

"We're basically having a good year," Bosland said. "Everything kind of pales compared to last year's growing conditions, but quality and quantity this season are both fine." Most experts believe that the state's total chile harvest will remain close to last year's level of almost 95,000 tons.

Green chile and its ripened version, red chile, are among New Mexico's most popular cash crops. Once picked and processed, chile is the state's most valuable vegetable, raking in more than $200 million annually.

New Mexico chile growers were also peppered with an early season surge in a disease called beet curly top. "It's been a tough year for some growers," said Rich Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service and a project coordinator with the Chile Task Force. "There will be plenty of chile for roadside stands, but several of the state's large-scale operations were repeatedly hit with curly top, which hurt yields."

Curly top virus, which is spread by a tiny insect called the beet leafhopper, causes the chile plants to become yellow and stunted, Phillips said. Infected plants produce a few dull, wrinkled peppers that ripen prematurely. These peppers are never sent to market, he said.

Farmers' fears of reduced yields caused by sharp reductions in available irrigation water from the Rio Grande have cooled as the potent peppers moved into their harvest phase. In southern New Mexico's Hatch Valley, the green chile harvest began at the end of July and peaked in mid-August. Now, the red chile harvest will roll forward through the first frost in October.

Without normal amounts of river irrigation water, some chile growers along the Rio Grande turned to well water. But that, too, had its drawbacks because many of southern New Mexico's shallow underground aquifers contain water with more alkaline and salt, which affects yields. Moreover, well water is more expensive to use.

"It takes a lot of money to get that water out of the ground," said Phil Hibner, Luna County agricultural agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Last winter, Elephant Butte Irrigation District officials warned producers that drought conditions would force a reduction in their usual allotment of irrigation water from the river. Farmers in the district, accustomed to 3 feet of irrigation water per acre, were given only about 8 inches per acre this season.

According to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service in Las Cruces, the state's chile harvest has dipped slightly in the past three years, falling from 19,000 acres with 99,000 tons in 2000 to 16,800 acres with 96,400 tons in 2002. Acreage estimates for the current season are not available.

On the bright side, NMSU's Bosland pointed out the summer's heat wave may have packed a little more heat into the peppers themselves. "We don't know definitely yet, but typically when peppers are heat stressed, they'll be hotter."

Norman Martin is a writer for New Mexico State University.

e-mail: [email protected]

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