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Hot harvest season begins in New Mexico chile country

Arturo Dominguez pulls fire-roasted chile out of the propane roaster at Albertsons in Las Cruces on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023. Climate change, among others, is turning up the pressure on New Mexico’s iconic crop. (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
Higher temperatures, variable weather and water shortages collide with crops

HATCH, N.M. – Harvest season is starting for New Mexico’s signature crop, but hotter isn’t always better for chile.

Higher temperatures increase the spread of certain diseases (such as curly top virus) and limits fruit production for all kinds of crops, chile included. The heat can also threaten the lives of workers that must pick them by hand.

In recent years, stronger monsoons have flooded fields and wiped out crops and irrigation infrastructure alike. The heat is making this year different.

While the pavement shimmers, a breeze buffeting red ristras, much of the propane roasters crouch idly, without the signature roar and flames.

“The chile season has been on and off, to be honest, since the rise in heat levels this year,” said Fabian Grajeda, pointing out white ends of sunscalding on bright red ristras. “You can notice and a lot of the chilies here hanging, the tip is rotting off.”

Grajeda, 24, transports and sells chiles for Grajeda Farms, started 30 years ago by his father, Ubaldo. He said an earlier harvest is pulling in good numbers, with 4,000 stacks of chile already sold by the family farm.

The streets of Hatch are still quiet, with only a few license plates from Arizona or Texas pulling out of parking lots with freshly-roasted chiles hauled away in plastic bags.

Harvest and sales are expected to pick up for autumn, especially for the September Chile Festival.

Rafael García, who helps sell at Chile Fanatic, said that’s where bags of chiles are sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Rafel Garcia sorts chiles into bins for how spicy they are at Chile Fanatic in Hatch, New Mexico. ‘You just have to love chile,’ he told Source New Mexico in Spanish. ‘It’s flavor, it’s depth, that’s why we put it in everything.’ (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
Extra hot

New Mexico is the second-largest grower of green chile in the United States, and it must be hand-picked. In 2022, workers picked more than 49,000 tons of chile, with another 4,000 tons of red chile, which can be harvested by machines.

Climate disruption is putting farmworkers at higher risk, said Carlos Marentes, who operates Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos in El Paso. Marentes has nearly forty years of experience housing and organizing farmworkers who often travel hours to work in New Mexico fields.

“The heat in the fields is unbearably higher, and it seems that farmworkers are now experiencing chronic dehydration,” Marentes said about a recent trip to the fields, where he delivered envelopes of electrolyte mix.

The demands to pick chile for packing plants means people are taking less time to drink water. Despite federal requirements to provide water, some workers are bringing in their own liquids to keep energy during the work day, he said.

Federal field sanitation standards mandate that cool drinking water must be readily accessible to all employees, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Currently, there are no heat-specific federal standards to protect workers from heat-related illness. OSHA is in the process of making a rule, but nothing is enacted yet.

Commercial chile growing is limited to southern New Mexico. The majority of acreage is in Doña Ana and Luna counties. The region faced record-breaking streaks of triple-digit temperatures, only broken up by a handful days above 97 degrees, according to 2023 temperature data.

Just over 25% of this year’s chile crops have been harvested so far, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national crop progress report. It is higher than the previous year that was slowed by monsoons.

The 2023 crop is showing higher rates of “very poor and poor” conditions compared to last year, as drought conditions across the state increase, according to the USDA.

Another factor is in part due to a small bug called the beet leafhopper. Early in the chile crop season, the increased beet leafhopper population spread an infection known as curly top, said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at the New Mexico State University Extension.

Fruiting plants – including chile – are also slowed by hotter temperatures.

“If it gets too hot, the plants stop putting on fruit, because pollination only occurs at a certain temperature range,” Walker said. “Certainly over 95 degrees, the plants really slow down actual pollination of the flowers and fruit.”

Instead, Walker said, chiles are growing earlier in the season, slowing down during the summer and fruiting again in the fall.

Ristras hang to dry outside of Grejada Chile Farms in Hatch, New Mexico. (Danielle Prokop / Source New Mexico)
Thirstier systems

Hotter temperatures increase all crop demands for water. The Rio Grande ran high this year from good snowmelt and offered a boost to the groundwater under the river pumped out to quench crops.

Much of Southern New Mexico is harsh desert. Crops can grow on strips of land around the Rio Grande, fed by the surface water, and the water that percolates through the earth.

In Luna County, chile is fed by pools of groundwater sucked up by wells faster than they can refill. With just 10 inches of rain or snow a year on average to recharge the Mimbres River Underground Water Basin, the groundwater used for crops in Luna County is essentially mined.

Much of New Mexico’s chile plants are grown with drip irrigation, a system that uses less water than flood irrigation, Walker said.

With the end of surface irrigation, groundwater pumps will be turned on to finish out the irrigation season, said Erek Fuchs, the groundwater resources director for Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

“I don’t have any major concerns for chile going the way, the dodo,” but we all need to be obviously attentive to ongoing drought conditions and aquifer impacts,” he said. “Salt accumulation is going to continue, and that, I think, will be a tricky road to try to navigate here.”

Cooking the numbers

Despite its prominence on car license plates (or breakfast, lunch and dinner plates), chile is fourth in line of New Mexico’s more lucrative crops.

Hay and alfalfa make up the most acreage across the state, with more than 450,000 acres harvested last year, generating more than $409 million dollars, according to the USDA 2022 census. Pecans brought in more than $141 million and onions $120 million.

Chile requires less water than alfalfa or pecans, but also brings in less money.

Chile acreage peaked in the 1990s with more than 36,000 acres dedicated to growing chile. After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, that acreage significantly decreased, as chiles could be grown in Chihuahua, Mexico for cheaper prices.

In addition to climate change and water concerns, Walker said higher production prices and labor costs are “squeezing” growers.

Last year, there were only 8,400 acres dedicated to chile, bringing in an estimated $91 million, according to the state’s agriculture review.

“Pecans have spread like wildfire,” said Walker, noting an estimated 47,000 acres harvested last year. “Fields that I watched grow chile for many, many seasons suddenly have young pecan trees on them.”