HATCH, N.M. – The aroma of fresh roasted green chiles is already wafting through southern New Mexico as some farmers are getting a jump-start on the harvest.
The earlier start to the season is the result of some much needed rain, cooler temperatures and a change in the way some farmers are planting the state’s most famous crop.
Instead of starting from seed, more farmers are planting seedlings that have sprouted in a greenhouse to get their fields going faster. For some, it’s a hedge against increasing labor costs, while others see the method as a way to save water as climate change adds to the uncertainty of irrigation supplies with every passing growing season.
This year, irrigation allotments around New Mexico are among historic lows as other Western states are grappling with their own water problems, drought and wildfires. Federal officials expect to make the first-ever water shortage declaration in the Colorado River basin next month, prompting cuts in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
In New Mexico, winter snowpack was close to average. But climate experts say the soil already was parched after a dismal summer monsoon last year and warmer temperatures resulted in the snow melting earlier and more rapidly.
Add to that more evaporation, and less water makes its way into streams and reservoirs.
“We were really scared in the spring with the water situation we were having and those really high temperatures. There wasn't enough irrigation water,” said Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association.
With transplants, Robbs said one benefit is that farmers don’t have to water their seeds for four to six weeks in the spring.
Before 1940, transplanting chile seedlings was common. While most commercial chile acreage today is started from seed, industry experts say there could be a shift again as water and labor pressures mount.
Sergio Grajeda Jr. has been using transplants in some fields on his family farm in Hatch for about five years.
He was thankful for the recent rains, saying they could not have come at a better time.
“God willing, the crop is going to turn out good. Everyone’s crop is going to be really good,” he said.
The one thing he has concerns about is market demand and whether people have room in their freezers for fresh chile.
“I think everything has to do with COVID," he said. “The same thing that happened with toilet paper, that’s what happened with chile last year. They just stocked up and stocked up."
Processors and distributors took the hit last year. Commercial demand was reduced as restaurants and other venues were forced to close. Robbs said people got used to buying their chile from grocery store freezers and eating it at home.
With businesses reopening, the industry has a more optimistic outlook.
Lisa and Herb Hawkins of Tucson, Arizona, made a pit stop at a roadside stand in Hatch on a recent Monday, lured by painted wooden signs that read “Now Roasting.” They've been buying chile in Hatch – dubbed the “Chile Capital of the World” – for about three decades.
“It’s just better than buying it in the grocery store,” she said. “There’s nothing better than fresh green chile. Nothing.”