How NMSU helped produce a green chile that may transform the industry - Albuquerque Journal

How NMSU helped produce a green chile that may transform the industry

​Nesto Martinez, left, and Guillermo Hernandez pick chile at a farm in New Mexico in 2021. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

With the latest statistics showing that New Mexico’s 2021 chile production dropped considerably from the previous year, the state’s chile experts identified a primary — and familiar — reason.

“Labor, labor, and more labor,” said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association. He spoke in an interview Tuesday from the foyer of the convention center in Las Cruces, which hosted this year’s annual New Mexico Chile Conference held Feb. 6 and Feb. 7.

“Our 2020 season was a lot better than 2021,” said Day.

While U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that in 2021 New Mexico’s total agriculture production grew 5% from 2020 to $3.17 billion — with chile and pecan production ranking in the top two spots in the nation — New Mexico’s chile production value dropped from $50.1 million in 2020 to $44.9 million in 2021.

Notably, the state’s chile production dropped from 65,600 tons in 2020 to 51,000 tons in 2021, a 22% decrease.

New Mexico’s chile production has fallen from a 2004 all-time high of 106,850 tons.

With that production shortfall affecting the New Mexican chile industry, the buzz at this year’s conference continues to be on a new chile variety, the New Mex Odyssey, a product of 10 years of selective breeding and field testing that has produced a green chile rugged enough for a fully mechanized harvest, bypassing the need for human labor.

Carla Dominguez, with Fiesta Canning Co., left, talks with Dr. Willis Fedio, associate professor and director of the Food Safety Laboratory at NMSU, right, during the annual chile conference at the Las Cruces Convention Center. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

“So we have the variety now that can be picked with the machine,” said Day. “We have a machine currently being developed, and so far it has worked very well. It doesn’t bruise the plants and it doesn’t ruin the crop, and we’re excited about it. We think that’s the future of the industry moving forward,” said Day. “It’s a huge game changer for us.”

Stephanie J. Walker, a vegetable scientist with the Cooperative Extension Service of New Mexico State University and the lead researcher for the Odyssey chile variety, said it was important for the chile to have three characteristics: the chiles had to hang high in the plant, the plant needed a strong central stem to withstand the mechanized harvest, and the chiles needed to detach easily from the plant.

“But it’s also really important that we can preserve the good New Mexico flavor of green chile,” she said, adding that the New Mex Odyssey achieves it all.

In addition, the correct type of mechanized harvester needs to be used “to provide the highest yield of unbroken fruit.”

That harvester, Walker said, is a “double helix machine, specifically one made in Israel.”

For other New Mexico farmers looking to mechanize their harvests with the New Mex Odyssey variety, Walker said the seed has been patented to the Gillis family farm in the Hatch Valley.

But it can also be a pricey endeavor. The equipment to maximize the New Mex Odyssey mechanized harvest ranges from $55,000 to a four-row machine “of about half a million dollars,” Walker said. “So that’s a bit of a hurdle for some growers.”

A guest holds a bag at the annual chile conference earlier this month in Las Cruces. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

The role of research

Leslie D. Edgar, the associate dean of the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, credits the state’s investment into research and development with the successful New Mex Odyssey chile variety.

“The more funding the state provides, the more opportunities our scientists have,” she said, adding that the last funding session was the most successful for the College of Agriculture’s research in 20 years. More than $4 million was provided, in addition to $1.5 million “in recurring dollars.” That, together with grants and contracts secured by the college’s research team, meant more than $24 million devoted to agricultural research last year, she said.

She touted that success when she spoke to conference attendees.

“I’m going to brag just a little bit,” she joked from the podium as she reported the numbers to about 200 people in attendance. She also reported that the number of NMSU’s weather stations — which report weather data critical to crop production planning — with state funding had reached 215 across New Mexico, making it “the largest continuous weather station network of any state in the nation.”

Water concerns

Also a topic of discussion among conference attendees was the November settlement reached in the decade-long legal fight between Texas and New Mexico over the Rio Grande’s water rights.

New Mexico claimed in the 2013 suit that Texas was illegally diverting water from the Rio Grande between Elephant Butte Dam and Hudspeth County, which resulted in Texas unfairly receiving more water than New Mexico, an alleged violation of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

Day said he believed the settlement was “favorable” for New Mexico, but added that “we are concerned with what unintended consequences there might be.” Top among those concerns, he said, is that “we don’t want to see land being taken out of production long term.

“We’re watching those settlement documents, and those initiatives that the state is going to move forward with, and we’re really getting heavily involved in those discussions,” he said.

Soil health

After hearing a presentation on GMO growing techniques, Cecilia Baca, an owner of the Baca Family Farm in Valencia County, shook her head.

“We are regenerative and organic farming,” she said about her family farm. “So some of what they were saying with the GMO, I don’t buy into it.”

She said her farm was growing one acre of chile, “and the rest is pasture because an important part of healthy soil is incorporating your animals,” she said.

Using organic methods — like planting Marigold flowers amid her tomato plants to keep away pests, or balancing the magnesium in the soil with an egg-shell based spray — is producing healthier products that provide better nutrition and don’t tax the environment, she said.

Baca said she received a grant from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to aid her in her mission of having natural, healthy soil.

On site at the conference was Juan C. Sanchez, a marketing specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, who agreed that the NMDA healthy soils program “is a valuable asset” for people interested in improving their soil naturally for farming.

“That’s why it is good to be here, to hear from experts in different areas. They have a lot to share.”

For Day, New Mexico chile is a powerful state ambassador all on its own. New Mexico chile has a national and international following, he said.

“When you hear ‘New Mexico,’ it is chile that people think of, and that they want. Even in New York or California restaurants, your consumers are asking for New Mexico chile,” he said. “We have people during the chile festival fly in from Hawaii just to buy their New Mexico chile. And so there is a huge nationwide interest, even on an international scale.”

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