Southern New Mexico is in the midst of one of the earliest chile harvests ever, and all signs point to a bumper crop.
“The green chile crop looks good across the board,” said Dave Layton, a crop consultant for Deming-based Border Foods Inc., one of the world's largest processors of green chile peppers. His plant has been taking in peppers since July 15, more than a week ahead of last year.
“And last year was one of the earliest dates anyone could remember,” he said.
An early harvest translates into more money for area farmers because of the extended growing season, said John White, Dona Ana County agent with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. NMSU agricultural experts say the state is well on the way to a repeat of the banner crop of 2000, when 19,000 acres produced 99,000 tons of chile. The state's most valuable vegetable is worth more than $200 million after processing.
“The year before last was a good year, and this year promises to be better,” said Bob Bevacqua, a vegetable specialist with NMSUs Cooperative Extension Service.
A constellation of positive factors aligned to produce this year's bumper chile crop, he said. Steady and gradually warming temperatures in the early spring were favorable for strong and vigorous crop establishment. Meantime, six months with little or no precipitation didn't hurt the largely irrigated chile fields.
“The absence of rain in the spring was actually favorable for the chile crop,” Bevacqua said. “We did have our isolated wind storms, but they weren't particularly damaging.”
In addition, the chile enjoyed a relatively bug- and disease-free spring. New Mexico's long-term drought has diminished the number of weeds at the edges of chile fields, where many pests could get their start early in the spring, said Carol Sutherland, an Extension entomologist.
Another boost came from beneficial insects in nearby alfalfa fields that shifted to chile as the hay was being harvested.
“They helped things out quite a bit,” Sutherland said.
Plant diseases could provide the only glitch in an otherwise positive outlook. Summer rains promote the growth of three diseases: phytophthora root rot or chile wilt, powdery mildew and bacterial spot. “They're the only threats on the horizon,” Bevacqua said. “They are all favored by humid and hot conditions.”
Bevacqua pointed out that chile experts predicted early on that this growing season was going to be exceptional. “This gave farmers ample time to prepare,” he said. “Producers and processors were able to recruit additional labor in advance. These anticipated high yields have also stimulated grower interest in purchasing mechanical harvesting equipment, which is a significant development.”
Just a few years ago little of the state's chile crop, which includes greens, reds, jalapenos, cayennes, paprikas and other peppers, was mechanically harvested. Now, much of the eastern New Mexico's chile is machine harvested, and interest is growing in the Mesilla Valley, West Texas and eastern Arizona, said Richard Phillips, a project manager with the Extension Service and coordinator of the New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force.
The task force has identified mechanical harvesting as key to the survival of chile production and processing in the state. Hand harvesting of chile accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the total farm costs of chile pepper production for New Mexico, he said.
New Mexico growers pay a minimum of $5.15 per hour, while foreign competitors pay as little as $1 a day.