HATCH – Jimmy Lytle and his pioneering farming family have built a chile legacy in this southern New Mexico village, laying claim to iconic varieties from the mild Big Jim named after his father to the new, hot chile, Miss Junie, named for his mother.
These days, the Lytle tradition is facing tough competition from across the border and state line, and the patriarch is fighting back the best way he knows how: focusing on his roots and knowledge of the heirloom qualities that give New Mexico chile its flavor.
“New Mexico chile grown in Hatch is famous the whole world over,” he said while standing in his store crowded with visitors flocking to the annual Hatch Chile Festival.
“What’s going to help us survive is people who want New Mexico chile,” the 74-year-old said.
This is about more than a fight to preserve a family legacy, it’s the battle to protect New Mexico’s emblematic crop. The number of acres of chile in New Mexico has dwindled due to a farm labor shortage, water availability and growing competition from neighboring states such as Arizona, Colorado and Chihuahua, just across the border in Mexico, and as far away as India and China.
Researchers at New Mexico State University, including the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute, are working with Lytle and other farmers in the region to develop heirloom varieties that give growers an edge.
“Many of the farming families here around the Hatch area have saved their own seed,” said Stephanie Walker, an extension vegetable specialist at NMSU.
On a recent visit to a field in the Hatch area, Walker and graduate student Israel Calsoyas examined plants to check on the size of the chiles. They were “flagging larger fruit” that could provide seed for new selections.
“If we would abandon this and only get seed from seed companies, you know, a seed company from another state, another country, potentially are not going to have that same knowledge of this crop and same passion for preserving what we love about New Mexico chile,” Walker said.
And no one is more passionate about chiles than Jimmy Lytle. The challenge is developing heirloom varieties that produce a big harvest for farmers but preserve flavor. Lytle says the new hot chile he cultivated, Miss Junie, named for his 93-year-old mother, shows a lot of promise.
“It’s already beating Arizona variety in yield, flavor, everything,” he said.
The flavor and the smell of fresh-roasted New Mexico chile this time of year attracts nearly 30,000 chile lovers from across the Southwest and beyond to the Hatch Chile Festival, which coincides with the peak in the harvest season and Labor Day weekend.
“It’s where we get our chile every year as soon their crop comes in,” said Andrew Trujillo, 48, from the South Valley in Albuquerque.
Trujillo, who drove in the day before the festival started “to beat the crowd,” has been making the annual trip to Hatch for the past 20 years.
“This is the first time I’m getting it peeled. I’m a little embarrassed,” said Trujillo, explaining that his relatives traditionally get together to peel the chiles but, like many families, are too busy this year.
Many of those waiting for their freshly roasted and peeled chile at the Lytles’ Chile Express store were also getting a stash for relatives, friends and co-workers.
The Spauldings, a couple from Tijeras, were picking up six large sacks of chile.
“We got them for my son, my daughter in Oregon, my hairdresser, and my daughter and son in Albuquerque,” said Mari Spaulding, 68.
Her 12-year-old grandson who is visiting took a plane and chile back to his mother in Portland today.
Others stuffed their trunks with boxes of chile for the drive home from Hatch.
It’s the busiest time of year for Jo Lytle, Jimmy’s wife, and their daughter, who ring up sales in the chile store. And though the fight to preserve and promote New Mexico chile is year-round, southern New Mexico growers are celebrating a healthy harvest.
“For farmers here in the Valley,” said Jo Lytle, “it’s like Christmas.”