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New Mexico chile harvest heats up as cooler weather arrives

New Mexico chile harvest heats up as cooler weather arrives
This fall, across New Mexico the sweet aroma of roasting green chiles fills the air.

In spite of a lag in harvesting because of late summer rains, the New Mexico chile pepper industry is making a robust push to pluck their famous spicy pods from fields around Hatch and as far south and west as the Deming area as the peak of the season indicates what looks to be a good crop.

Still of concern, however, is a slow but steady decline in planted acres in recent years.

This fall, across New Mexico the sweet aroma of roasting green chiles fills the air. From grocery stores to parking lots to backyard barbecues, the New Mexico chile reigns as a culinary favorite of just about every New Mexican, a tradition that has crossed state lines and become popular in other places far and wide.

September and much of October belong to what is perhaps the state's oldest and most favorite fall food tradition--harvesting and roasting chile peppers, New Mexico's signature crop, savored and served in practically every restaurant and main street diner across the state.

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While green chile harvest is in full swing, not all things have gone well in recent years for the state's favorite food and the industry that makes it happen. New Mexico Chile Association Executive Director Jaye Hawkins says the industry has been under assault on several fronts. Lack of water from a multi-year drought hasn't helped, but of greater concern is the threat posed by mostly foreign chile pepper producers.

With lower labor and input costs in Mexico and parts of South America, much of the growing consumer demand for green chile is now supplied by foreign producers who sell for a lower price and, if you ask any New Mexico chile aficionado, much lower.


Best chile climate is New Mexico

Jeanine Chavez Eden, Certification Program Coordinator for the New Mexico Chile Association, says chile pepper production requires a great deal of sunshine and hot daytime temperatures. But a combination of the right soil and cool nights provide the real flavor to the state's green chile delicacy.

Hawkins and Eden say while demand for chile is growing nationwide, so is the availability of foreign products. Unless something helps tip the balance back toward the flavorful and original New Mexico varieties, the industry will continue to decline.

The New Mexico Chile Association, industry representatives and many state officials have been working to make that change happen in recent years. Ask any respectable New Mexican and he will tell you there is a difference between certified New Mexico-grown green chile and hot peppers grown anywhere else in the world, and they say the proof is in the taste.

In 2011, New Mexico lawmakers passed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, which makes it illegal to advertise any product as New Mexico chile unless it is grown within the state. Last month the industry launched a certification program—already gaining support from growers, buyers and local restaurants—that proudly posts a logo on boxes, grocery shelves and restaurant doors and windows declaring the authenticity of the chiles served and sold as being the real McCoy—New Mexico-grown chile peppers.



Officials are hopeful these programs will bring more attention to their time-honored chile crop and create a large enough loyal base to perpetuate the continued prosperity of the industry.

In spite of the drought, competition and recent heavy rains that slowed harvest for days, the peak green chile season has pickers busy bringing in what is termed a healthy crop. As cooler weather approaches, the ripening process will change harvest from green to red chile peppers in October to satisfy the steady demand for both unique flavors the New Mexico chile offers.

Hawkins says it is good to see fields hectic with activity and hopes the tradition will continue and the industry will one day thrive with mechanized harvest aids that do not bruise the delicate peppers. Add to that the strong and loyal support of those who depend on their annual fix of green or red, and its easy to understand why optimism continues to rule even against the greatest of odds.

For another year, at least, New Mexico chile lovers will get their fill of the state's hottest food commodity. The only real question is—do you want red or green with your meal?

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