Originally created 06/02/04

New Mexico's hot peppers are off to good start



LOS LUNAS, N.M. -- David Chavez reaches down and picks up a fistful of dirt, working it with his fingers as he explains there's something about the soft clumps of soil that give his green chili a special flavor.

But Chavez will be the first to admit that it takes more than good dirt, water and weather to get a bumper crop of hot peppers. He believes in divine intervention.

"I'll tell you what, I don't grow the chili. I'm the planter, not a grower," the 48-year-old farmer says.

Chavez and other New Mexico farmers are encouraged that a mild spring and lack of pests have put the state's most valuable vegetable crop on the right track. Experts say that barring inclement weather or a bug invasion, chili is expected to do well this year.

But farmers are waiting until October, the end of the chili season, to make any predictions.

"Farmers are always real leery," said Dino Cervantes, a member of the New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force and general manager of Cervantes Enterprises in La Mesa. "We don't like to jinx ourselves."

Last year's crop is still fresh on the minds of farmers. Drought forced many of them to cut back on their acres of chili, while strong wind and hail destroyed some of the pepper stands.

Figures recently released by the state Department of Agriculture show that New Mexico produced more than 85,300 tons of hot peppers last season, marking a 9 percent decrease from the previous year.

Some 15,800 acres of chili were planted last year, and Walker says a similar amount has been planted this year. About 80 percent of the state's chili is grown for commercial processors, with the rest sold at roadside stands or to restaurants.

New Mexico's chili industry infuses millions of dollars into the state's economy each year, but state Economic Development Secretary Rick Homans says the importance of the crop goes beyond the numbers.

"Chili is really part of our heritage. It's our identity," he said.

While New Mexico's reputation as a major pepper producer continues to grows, some farmers are finding it more difficult to turn a profit. Chavez, who has about 30 acres of chili in Los Lunas, talks about higher diesel prices, costly equipment and a changing climate.

"When I used to plant chili, we didn't give it half the attention we give it now. You could almost drop seed in the sand," he says. "But now it's getting harder and harder."

Cervantes points to a lack of water and the high cost of farm workers. He says the industry is working on mechanizing a larger portion of the operation and farmers are hopeful the drought will eventually work itself out.

Despite the obstacles, the chili industry says it's here to stay.

"The unique part of this industry is that most of the businesses are family owned operations that are committed to this state so they'll fight tooth and nail to survive," Cervantes says.

On the Net:

New Mexico Chile Task Force: http://www.chiletaskforce.org

The Chile Pepper Institute: http://www.chilepepperinstitute.org