As lawmakers celebrate green chile, farmers struggle to make it pay
In the legislative session in Santa Fe, lawmakers are considering whether to enshrine the smell of roasting green chile as the state aroma or whether New Mexicans need a state chile song. Already, the chile is the state vegetable (along with the pinto bean), while the state question is "red or green?"
But amid all this spicy hype, some farmers actually growing the celebrated chile say times are so hard they are decreasing the amount of acreage they devote to the crop, or even giving up entirely.
Glen Duggins, president of the New Mexico Chile Association, has been growing green chile at his farm in Lemitar for almost 40 years. For a long time, he got a good price for it.
"It was very good to me," he said. "It raised my son, took care of my family. I even could spread it around in my community when they were in need."
Now, he is giving up on growing chile as profits dwindle.
"Our problem is unfair trade and lack of labor," he said, in addition to rising costs of inputs like fertilizer.
"How can you sell it for a proper price when they're importing it from Mexico?" he said.
Customs and Border Protection reported a 25% increase in chile imports from Mexico between 2016 and 2021.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2021 in New Mexico chile production was 51,000 tons, a 22% decrease from 2020 and less than half what was produced in 2004.
State Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte acknowledged that labor is a particular problem for green chile growers. Red chiles can often be picked mechanically, because they can all be picked at once. Green chiles are ready to be picked at different times, and are still picked by hand.
But he said change is coming. "Technology is going to be the answer," he told KUNM.
Trials have shown good results with a mechanical harvester made in Israel. Witte said that he had witnessed a "quite successful" demonstration last year on a test plot at New Mexico State University.
As for the chile itself, university researchers through breeding programs say they have developed a variety of chile that is well suited for the mechanical harvester, with the working name NuMex Odyssey.
In an NMSU press release, chile researcher Stephanie Walker explained how the team changed the plant architecture.
“We needed the plant to have a strong, single stem with fewer basal branches." she said. "The low lying lateral branches interfered with the machine, causing it to uproot the plant. We also found that fruit setting slightly higher on the plant and also detaching from the plant with less force contributed to a cleaner mechanical pick.”
Witte paints an optimistic future for the industry.
"I think you're going to see that in many fields in New Mexico this next year," he said. "It's going to be a game changer for what we deal with in the agricultural labor area around chile."
The farmer, Duggins, is skeptical of the chances of success of mechanized green chile production, and for the moment will grow alfalfa and other crops.
On a federal level, the challenges to the green chile industry highlight the difficulties of farmers who grow non-commodity crops like fruits, vegetables and nuts. They do not benefit from subsidies in the same way as farmers who grow corn, soy, wheat or rice.
Senator Ben Ray Luján told KUNM he has spoken to chile producers along with many other people working in agriculture in a series of round table meetings. He sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is working on the federal Farm Bill's reauthorization.
"There's more advocacy that I have been raising as a result of my conversation with the New Mexico chile producers," he said. "Everything from looking at support for crops that are specialty crops to modernization."