Hot topics: NM conference gets into chile industry's major issues - Albuquerque Journal

Hot topics: NM conference gets into chile industry’s major issues

Workers pick green chile in a field near Salem, New Mexico, on Sept. 24. The chile industry’s existing labor issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to speakers at the New Mexico Chile Conference, held last week in Las Cruces. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The annual gathering of New Mexico’s chile ranchers typically brings together the best and the brightest in the industry to discuss the issues of the state’s iconic crop.

This year it also brought out the shiniest.

“I’m an adventurous eater, so when I started to learn more about all these chile varieties, I just got absolutely fascinated,” said David “Dr. Dave” Baumler, a food scientist who addressed an auditorium of ranchers and academics while wearing glistening green polyester spandex, a shiny red vest, sequin gold shorts and a bedazzled broad-brimmed hat.

Originally from Wisconsin, Baumler — who has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, master’s degree in food microbiology and a Ph.D. in cellular molecular biology — presented an array of studies he’s made on what he unabashedly calls life’s passion for the past 10 years: the chile pepper. A former academic, Baumler is now CEO and president of Minnesota-based Seed To Gut Cannabis & Food Consulting.

David Baumler, a food scientist and CEO and president of Minnesota-based Seed To Gut Cannabis & Food Consulting, sported a shiny get-up Tuesday at the 39th annual New Mexico Chile Conference in Las Cruces. (Reyes Mata III/For the Journal)

His presentation, “A Genomic and Phenotypic Systems Examination” of 500 varieties of peppers, was one of 15 seminars organized for the 39th annual New Mexico Chile Conference held Tuesday at the Las Cruces Convention Center.

The all-day conference featured 19 presenters who spoke to about 150 participants throughout the day, covering topics from agricultural robotics to technology for weed control. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the event took place in a hybrid format, with some attendees participating remotely via Zoom.

“The New Mexico Chile Conference has always been one of the most informative conferences on chile peppers,” said Stephanie Walker, NMSU associate professor, extension vegetable specialist and conference co-founder. “We provide growers, processors and researchers with the latest information and let them know that NMSU is on the cutting edge of chile pepper innovation.”

During his opening remarks, Travis Day, executive director for the New Mexico Chile Association, laid out some of the challenges facing New Mexico’s chile growers.

“Back in the early ’90s we were looking at 30,000 acres of harvested acreage of New Mexico chile. Fast-forward to 2020, we are at about 8,500 acres,” he said. “The overall 30-year trend has seen a significant decrease” in production that he attributed to four conditions: a labor shortage, limited water availability, increased cost of production and increased foreign competition.

“The labor shortage has always been an issue. But the coronavirus pandemic really exacerbated that issue,” Day said.

State lawmakers are currently considering a measure that aims to address those labor issues by restarting a chile labor incentive program that was halted in December. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture distributed $2.8 million last year from the American Rescue Plan Act to chile farmers under a plan from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but the program was suspended after the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have the authority to allocate ARPA funds. The current measure, Senate Bill 157, is sponsored by Las Cruces Democrat Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Elephant Butte Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond, and would direct $2.2 million of federal pandemic relief funds to boost worker wages.

Day said “a generational shift in the workforce” is also complicating hiring efforts.

“You look at baby boomers, they were the ones that were fine with physical labor, they wanted to get out, they wanted to get dirty. But now we have a majority workforce of millennials, and that is not their forte,” he said. “They do not want to go out, they do not want to work hard, they want more technology-driven positions. They are not getting that fulfillment in the chile fields.”

Paul Bosland, the former director of the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute and an NMSU regents professor emeritus of horticulture agreed at the conference that the chile industry is “a hard way to make a living.”

“The chile industry is facing a lot of issues. So the university is looking at both the large farmer needs and the small farmers needs,” he said. “For the folks that have large farms we are looking at things like machine harvesting, machine stemming, and for the folks who have smaller farms, we are developing new cultivars with new colors, new flavors, higher nutrition, for them to use for their small acreage,” Bosland said.

Jack West is a grower for a small-acreage farm in Bernalillo County. His operation, Grow the Growers, is three acres and is part of an NMSU-affiliated incubation program designed to train New Mexicans to become farmers.

He said he sees a high value on the information provided by this year’s conference presenters.

“It’s specific to where the chile industry is going — mechanization and pesticides, and also with an undertone of soil health. This is a good place where it comes together,” he said about the conference, and added that another helpful element of the annual gathering was “the social aspect.”

“You have a lot of farmers with these isolated lives who will get this chance to come here and talk to other people who spend their days thinking about this, it’s always on their mind, they are dreaming about it, and finally they can share it with someone who has similar stories who can really relate,” West said.

The pandemic has interrupted the social component of the conference, said Danise Coon, senior research specialist for the NMSU chile breeding and genetics program.

“We had lots of people calling us, making sure we were still doing it in person,” she said, but noted that attendance is down “about 50%” from pre-pandemic conferences.

Day, who leads the association of growers, ranchers, processors and distributors, said he believes it is critical to fight what he says is “bad legislation from D.C. and Santa Fe.”

“It’s bad for business in general, and really bad for our members, specifically the Healthy Workplaces Act,” he said. “That is very dangerous for our members, especially considering that these are only part-time employees, seasonal employees, and now farmers would have to provide them with sick leave, paid sick leave.”

The Healthy Workplaces Act — a law passed by the New Mexico Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2021 — “requires private employers in New Mexico, regardless of size, to provide paid sick leave to employees beginning July 1, 2022,” according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions website.

Another area of concern for the New Mexico chile industry, Day said, is the “huge influx of Mexican chile coming north and dominating our chile industry,” and said the statewide market is best protected by aggressively “promoting New Mexico chile” through the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, which prohibits imported chile from being labeled as New Mexico chile.

Studying, protecting and promoting the state’s chile is an obligation that Bosland says he takes seriously. The struggle should continue, he said, despite the setbacks encountering the industry.

“Chile in New Mexico, this is part of our culture, it’s part of our soul. It is part of our spiritual being. That’s why we try so hard to try to maintain it,” he said. “We may not have as many acres as we did before, but we still grow enough to satisfy the needs of our soul.”

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