New Mexico's chile landscape stems from pride and profit. The cash crop of green and red chile, plump jalapeños and curved cayennes is worth $60 million at harvest. After processing, its value more than quadruples.
Nearly 400 farmers scattered from Alcalde to Artesia and Las Cruces to Lordsburg raise the state's most valuable vegetable. In 1998, 95 percent of the harvested chile acreage came from seven counties in southern and eastern New Mexico. Three southern counties Luna, Doña Ana and Hidalgo accounted for 75 percent of the acreage.
While most of the crop is grown under contract for processing, about 20 percent of the state's chile and almost all of the northern crop is destined for the fresh market, sold roasted and dried at farmers markets and roadside stands.
Though it's produced for a niche market, chile is still a high-value crop if it brings premium prices, says Gerald Chacon, a member of the Small Farm Task Force and northern district director for NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.
Northern farmers rely on peppers adapted to the colder climate, raising commercial varieties like NMSU's Española Improved as well as heirloom chiles.
Near Alcalde, Orlando A. Casados keeps traditions alive. My chile seed was given to me in junior high by an old man, he says. Through the years, we've been able to keep the quality and size.
Casados fills orders for northern chile fans across the country and sells his crop at a local fruit stand.
Northern New Mexico has a large tourist base, which is an advantage for chile growers, says Jim Libbin, economist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. Ristras and tourism date back to the Chili Line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad that ran from Antonito, Colo., to Española from 1881 to 1941, taking its nickname from ristras drying along the route.
Though most processing facilities are located in the south, a notable exception is Albuquerque-based Bueno Foods, owned by the Baca family. Bueno distributes frozen green and red chile, red chile powder and pods, and prepared foods like burritos and enchiladas. Though its retail products are well-known in the Southwest, the bulk of Bueno's business is in supplying food service companies.
The appetite for New Mexican foods continues to grow. We've seen a fivefold increase in our business since Jacqueline Baca, our current president, took over in 1989, says Ana Baca, Bueno's communications manager.
Before it's frozen, canned, dehydrated or pickled, most of the chile crop basks in southern New Mexico. Historically, Doña Ana County has boasted the most chile acreage, though Luna County has surpassed it for nine of the last 10 years. The crop is celebrated at the Hatch Chile Festival and Las Cruces' Whole Enchilada Fiesta, the state's fourth-largest tourism event.
Dickie Ogaz, a Mesilla Valley farmer who started growing chile in 1969, exports part of his crop through a custom-order business. For the past 10 years, Los Angeles consumers have been able to order Big Jim or extra-hot chile from New Mexico. They pay a California salesperson half the price in advance.
Ogaz and other growers fill the orders with top-quality chile that's refrigerated within two hours of picking and trucked to California. We send five semi loads of chile up there every year, he says.
Ogaz, who also raises red chile for processing and vegetables for roadside stand sales in Garfield, is taking the custom-order business to the Phoenix market this year.
Second only to the south, New Mexico's Pecos Valley has become a hotbed of chile production. This is always where the highest-color paprika is, says Harold Hobson of Hobson Gardens in Roswell. The business, which began in 1962, draws customers from Midland and Odessa, Texas, southern Colorado and eastern Arizona.
Those who can't visit eastern New Mexico to pick their peppers can get express delivery via UPS. Roasting parties are popular because people love the smell coming off the barbecue grill, Hobson says. In 15 years, the company has shipped to Maine and Washington state, Japan and Puerto Rico.
Marketing a pepper is simple in a lot of ways, Hobson says. It's a vegetable people get passionate about.