Farmers fight to preserve New Mexico chile as harvest season begins

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Fall ushers in the chile harvest in the Southwest and the smell of roasted peppers fills the air in Southern New Mexico.

The demand for hot peppers in this country continues to grow. But the number of acres of chile planted is dwindling as farmers in New Mexico face competition from cheaper foreign grown peppers.

"Other crops produce more money and are less labor intensive. They're mechanically harvested and grown and produced whereas chile is very hands on," said Chris Biad whose family has been growing Chile in New Mexico for four generations.

During harvest season, Biad's Chile plant roasts 100,000 pounds of chile every six weeks.

Amelia Davis picked up two 10 pound boxes at the plant.

"I don't know if it will last me because we kind of get addicted to green chile." said Davis.

Some loyal customers travel from neighboring Texas and Arizona to get their fix.

"We make queso with chile for dips. Green chile stew. Red chile stew," said Jean de la O who was with her husband. Both were wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys when they stopped by Biad's store to buy green chiles.

Others order their supply on-line.

"And we ship it all over throughout the United States, " said Biad. "There's not a state that we don't ship it to and that's growing quickly."

But as the appetite for chile grows so has the competition from China, India, and Mexico where farm labor is much cheaper.

"Over the last ten years when you lose so much so quickly, 20,000 acres of chile gone and it's what you do for a living and you grow up doing it you get concerned," said Biad.

Last year state lawmakers passed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act to keep impostors from labeling their fresh or processed chile as New Mexican unless it was grown in the state.

Others say quality is the key to coping with competition. They want to preserve chile plants that are native to New Mexico. Some hope heirloom varieties will boost sales.

"They have five times the flavor of the standard green chiles being grown today. Not five times the heat but the actual green chile flavor," said Professor Paul Bosland, of New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.

Professor Bosland developed two lines, the NuMex Heritage Big Jim and NuMex Heritage 6-4, from seeds stored 50 years ago in the USDA National seed storage lab in Colorado.

Bosland has spent the last 27 years at the Institute researching chiles.

"We have more than 150 different varieties of chiles. And every 15 feet is a different variety," said Bosland as he walked through the teaching garden. The peppers range from decorative chile plants to the super hot Bhut Jalokia from India.

"It translates to ghost pepper. It means it's so hot you give up your ghost. You die. A lot of these chiles are grown in poor regions where this one chile can do the whole dish that night for dinner," said Bosland.

While that variety might be too hot for most Americans, salsa replaced ketchup as the most popular condiment years ago. And American taste buds crave spicier food these days.

"Now people are eating chiles everywhere and young people have really embraced that fiery food," said Bosland.

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