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Pandemic hinders chile workforce

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A worker hauls a plastic bin brimming with green chiles to tractors Wednesday afternoon in a field near Garfield. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

HATCH – There are days when Sergio Grajeda works from 5 in the morning to 11 at night. Some nights he lies awake, worried about what the coming weeks will bring.

“Last night was one of those sleepless nights,” Grajeda said Wednesday afternoon, standing outside his store in Hatch. “I have too much demand from people and I have to wonder ‘how am I going to deliver?'”

For Grajeda, a chile farmer with 30 years in the fields, this is not normal. But it’s the reality COVID-19 has put him in.

Like other farmers in the Hatch Valley, both small and large-scale, Grajeda is facing a serious worker shortage – spurred by heightened border security, virus fears and lucrative unemployment incentives – as the demand for green chile spikes.

Farmer Sergio Grajeda checks on the sole worker picking his field of green chile on Wednesday afternoon in Hatch. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Witte, secretary for the state Department of Agriculture, said the virus has “compounded” the problem in an area already seeing labor shortages.

“You’ve got workers that are concerned about their health, being in large groups, you’ve got restrictions on some travel – out of Mexico – it’s just a combination of factors,” he said, adding that they have sent out guidance for COVID-safe practices to farmers and have had a low number of incidences so far.

“We can’t take the chance (of an outbreak), when produce is ready to be harvested we can’t wait, it has to be done then,” Witte said.

The situation is becoming untenable for some farmers who are losing profits, crops and the good graces of buyers. The numerous fields of green chile that dot the landscape between Arrey and Las Cruces are noticeably emptier this year.

In many cases, the workforce has been cut in half. But the workload hasn’t.

Fields still need to be weeded as they approach harvest. And the green chile peppers must be plucked in their prime, before they turn red.

Scott Adams, of Adams Produce Inc. in Hatch, is feeling the heat as his fields of green chile turn red without workers to pick them fast enough.

“The demand is there – we’re just not able to get it out,” he said, adding that they’re already dealing with a slew of upset buyers who were promised green chile.

“We are only able to supply half of what we were supposed to,” Adams said.

Usually touting a crew of around 100, he now only has 50 or so.

Workers kneel in the hot sun at a field near Garfield, moving their hands past the red chiles that dot the plants to grab the ones that are vibrant green and faultless. Made up of both men and women – ranging from teenagers to seniors – the laborers fill up large plastic bins with green chile and hand it to those on a tractor who empty them into giant crates. They move down the rows, repeating the process, in good spirits as they talk, laugh or joke over the crooning of Latin ballads from a nearby speaker.

“There’s plenty of work!” Matthew Araiza said with a broad smile, his arms outstretched over the rows of unpicked plants – bursting with chile – that stretched in every direction.

An electrician by trade, based in Las Cruces, Araiza said he came out for the season to pick chiles but doesn’t know if he will return again.

Although it is his first season working in the fields, he said the lack of labor is clear from the number of red chiles still hanging from plants, or left on the ground.

From Adams’ perspective, the lack of workers is a result of the fact that they had been making more on unemployment than in the fields, thanks to the additional $600 per week unemployment payments available up until recently. For those same reasons, Adams said he lost 50 acres of onions and predicts he will lose 20% of his crops overall, including green chile.

Dozens of workers pick green chile from a field near Garfield on Wednesday afternoon.

And farmers can’t count on higher prices to soften the impact of those losses.

“The prices are already set this year, so we take the hit on that,” Adams said.

He said the local government is “dug in” on the pandemic and the impact – of business shutdowns, travel restrictions and unemployment incentives – on New Mexico farmers remains to be seen.

“I think it’s going to have a long-term effect,” he said. “We’re definitely going to need some help from the government … We need handouts, too.”

At another field, just south of Adams’, Gonzalo Pahua watches a dozen workers clearing weeds from a field of green chile plants as harvest time closes in.

He said usually there are many more people, around 45 to 50, and a one-week job will now take at least two.

Workers are few and far between due to fears of the virus, Pahua said, but those in the fields feel more comfortable and safe from COVID-19, because they are working outside rather than packed into a factory or plant.

Those he oversees are wearing masks and they’re spread far and wide as they go about their work.

Gonzalo Pahua watches a dozen or so workers clear weeds from a field of green chile in Hatch as harvest time approaches.

The 57-year-old said, at his age, the factories and plants aren’t as accommodating. Plus, for the last few decades, the fields are all he has known.

“I’m not a young pup anymore,” Pahua said with a chuckle.

With few options, a small-scale farmer like Grajeda forges ahead and hopes for the best.

“The fields are ready to be picked, they don’t wait for the workers,” Grajeda said. “You have to pick it.”

Where there are usually seven workers to help pick his fields, Grajeda now has one. Meanwhile, his sons help out more around the farm while his wife runs their store in Hatch, selling sacks of chile to a constant stream of customers.

“We have done our part, now all we need is the workers,” Grajeda said.

Another casualty of the shortage, Grajeda has had to sacrifice his watermelon and bean crops, a recent venture that he bought a costly tractor for, to prioritize the green chiles.

Grajeda said COVID-19 has “changed everything” and, in 30 years, he has never faced anything like this. And he doesn’t think it is going away anytime soon.

“I don’t think it will be normal from now on, but we have to live with the conditions we have now,” he said.

Grajeda later added, “We have to come out of this.”

During the pandemic, Witte hopes farmers can work together to rotate the workers and get the harvest, but he said it’s going to slow it down some.

In the long run, Witte said such shortages could lead farmers to shift from hand-picked crops – like green chile and cabbage – to more mechanized crops like pecans and grain silage.

That could mean less green chile in the future. For now, he said, the farmers are hurting.

“You hear the stress, you hear the challenges that they have, when they plant a seed in the spring you’re hoping you get a good harvest in the fall,” Witte said. “And that’s where we’re at right now.”

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