The sound echoes like drums across the field, as green chile peppers – thick, ripe and heavy – are dropped into plastic buckets by field hands pulling them from hundreds of thousands of sturdy Hatch Valley chile plants.
“This chile is not very hot. I can tell because it does not have that spicy aroma,” said Andres Condado, a chile picker from Arizona who has been coming to pick New Mexico chile fields for four years. “This one is sweet and mild,” he said about the field he was picking.
With hat, bandana, long-sleeves and jeans, Condado took a break to smoke and eat a burrito he pulled out from a napkin wrapped in tin foil. One of about 125 field hands picking 12 acres of green chile, he said he likes the work, which is “steady, reliable and enjoyable.”
Many workers carried portable radios attached to their belts or wedged into the New Mexico soil alongside their picking trail. Men, women, young and old walk among the thigh-high plants, singing and joking, and whistling loudly when break time comes.
Silverio Moreno looked out at the field after a drag on his cigarette. “Good quality of the plants this year,” he said while leaning against his two-tone pickup truck. He has been a field worker since 2004, and follows crops around the country, picking oranges, peaches and tobacco.
Chile is his favorite, he said, because the chiles often “hang high on the plant” for easier picking.
Chimayó may be the craft chile mecca for chile pepper purists, but the Hatch Valley is the agri-business that vaulted chile peppers to the national stage.
NMSU’s successful chile cross-breeding at the beginning of the 20th century created the “New Mexico pod type” which was then standardized for predictable size and heat variations, and was successfully marketed to create the industry it is today, said Lisa Lopez, program specialist for the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
There are 24,800 farms throughout the state, and field workers are the hands in the dirt that power the billion-dollar New Mexico agricultural economic engine.
And in the nation, New Mexico is king of this crop. Last year, the state’s 9,000 acres of chile fields produced 152 million pounds of chile, generating a state income of almost $52 million, and outpacing the other three chile-growing states – Texas, Arizona and California – according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers say that the crops this year are healthy but that they have struggled with two major problems: a persistent drought and a smaller workforce.
The drought has been alleviated by pumping groundwater, but that’s a short-term solution that can affect the appearance of the chile, which makes it harder to sell.
“The drought has hurt us badly because we have to use pumps, and when you use a pump it brings in a lot of minerals, so you’ll get a lot of ‘tip burn’ – the very tip of the chile gets black. And you can’t sell it like that,” said Lorenzo Castillo, a field supervisor who works for Adams Produce, which grows on about 3,500 acres in southern New Mexico.
In addition to tip burn, pumping water means maintaining wells and running electricity.
“The cost of pumping groundwater adds about 25% to the cost. And we’ll water chile all the way up to October, November, until the first freeze,” said Willie Villegas Jr., a fourth-generation Hatch farmer who owns Hillside Farms, a small family-run operation.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she has seen how the drought has affected the places she frequented as a child.
“I am a lifelong New Mexican. My family has been here for generations,” she said. “Just decades ago, I could swim in the Rio Grande between Socorro and Elephant Butte and Elephant Butte and Las Cruces, and you can’t do that anymore.”
She said she believes that the New Mexico drought is evidence of “the process of aridification,” which is an environmental occurrence associated with climate change that alters a region permanently from a wetter to a drier climate.
President Biden’s Rescue Plan and infrastructure money, she said, can enable New Mexico to enhance its “50-year water plan” to ensure the state will “have a strong agricultural footprint for hundreds of years from now.”
Perhaps the issue that aggravates Hatch Valley farmers more than any other is the worker shortage – a topic that usually brings out a visceral reaction.
“Don’t even ask me about that. It’s bad, really bad,” said Adrian Ricardo Ogaz, owner of Ogaz Farms in Garfield. Born in 1938, Ogaz grows chile on 400 acres in the Hatch Valley.
“You know these politicians are giving so many benefits to all these people getting checks every month, so why would they want to work?” he asked, saying that COVID relief money for field workers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture disincentivized farm workers.
Typically the New Mexico chile industry employs a seasonal workforce of 3,000 workers, according to the New Mexico Chile Association, but this year a shortage in labor has only 1,350 seasonal workers in the fields.
When asked how the government might be able to help him during the lean times of COVID-19, Randy McMillan, owner of Fresh Chile Co. in Las Cruces, was pretty concise.
“Stop paying people to stay home, and stop saying that paying them is not affecting the workforce because that is a bald-faced lie,” he said. “I know it. I see it every day, and it has devastated a lot of people.”
Several federal programs that offered expanded benefits to unemployed people expired weeks ago.
To address the labor shortage in the New Mexico chile industry, Lujan Grisham last month announced the New Mexico Chile Labor Incentive Program – a pilot wage supplement program that will “provide funding to chile growers, labor contractors and processors on a first-come, first-served basis,” a release from her office states.
These additional funds, which can’t bump any worker’s pay beyond $19.50 an hour, can be applied to the paychecks of “existing and prospective workers as well as incentivize hiring and retention,” the release said.
“We are pumping $5 million directly to our chile farmers and producers to engage in getting workers there to make sure our chile products get picked, get produced, and get marketed,” the governor said.
Another issue of concern is the importation of chile from Mexico, which some Hatch area farmers say is minimizing their ability to make a larger profit.
With less restrictive growing requirements and lower expenses in Mexico, the concern with Hatch farmers is that Mexican growers will sell their chile cheaper to area chile processors. Processed chile is a larger part of the chile market than fresh chile – $39.3 million compared with $12.6 million, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“The red chile has already been lost. They have already taken that market,” said Scott Adams, owner of Adams Produce. “And they are after the green market,” he said, adding, “When you think of a grower in Mexico you are thinking of a small Hispanic farmer down there hand-picking … no, these are large, mostly white Mennonites and Mormons with huge farms.”
More than $35.5 million worth of green and red chile peppers have been imported from Mexico to New Mexico in 2020, according to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
With such large-scale chile importation from Mexico into New Mexico – and with the value of the Hatch Valley chile brand – another concern is bootleg chile from Mexico being marketed as Hatch Chile.
Industry leaders are doing what they can to curtail that.
“We do yearly audits at farms and processors to make sure that chile was actually grown where it said it was grown, and that it was not imported from Mexico, Texas or Arizona,” said Joram Robbs, executive director of New Mexico Chile Association.
As part of the Chile Advertising Act of New Mexico, which is administered by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, any chile labeled as “New Mexico Chile” or “Hatch chile” – or any other region of the state – must be registered with the state and audited. And carry that label.
If chile is coming in from Mexico, Robbs said, “part of federal law is ‘country of origin’ labeling,” so it should say “product of Mexico” on the labeling, he said.
There are occasional violators, Robbs said, but it is not a persistent problem.
From the valleys at Chimayó with its ancient chile nurtured by hand and selectively sold, to the churning agri-business across thousands of acres in Hatch Valley, chile is the familiar bond between culture and families that connect New Mexicans.
“It’s in our blood. It has been with us for so long,” said Lopez. “It’s served in our elementary school cafeterias. We eat it every day. It is on our license plate. It is a very important part of our identity as New Mexicans,” she said. “It’s our state question: Red or green?”
That’s a question pondered by many.
Perhaps the late Anthony Bordain, chef and culinary traveler, expressed it best.
“New Mexico is an enchanted land where people are largely free to create their own world,” he said when he visited in 2013.
“As far as the much more important question of where I stand on the question of red chile or green? I’m green all the way,” he said. “And New Mexico’s got it best.”