In the Land of Enchantment, green chile harvest is one of the most anticipated events of the year.
"It's right up there with the annual International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque and the (annual) UFO Festival every Fourth of July week in Roswell," says Tony Esparza, a chile picker in the Hatch area.
Thanks to seedlings planted early in greenhouses and wind tunnels and later transplanted to fields after the cool start of spring, chile growers in New Mexico's agricultural-rich Mesilla Valley region are reporting harvest is now underway on many farms, the first box of long awaited chile shipping out nearly a week ago as producers scrambled to meet the growing demand for custom orders.
"From what I hear from producers all across the Valley, orders have been coming in for a couple of weeks now and we're moving chile out about as fast and we can pick them," he added.
Jay Hill, who grows chile just south of Las Cruces, agrees demand is high for chile--this year and every year. He says producers feared chile harvest would be a little late this year because of the cool spring, but thanks to a warm, dry summer, many farms are reporting even late-planted chile is beginning to ripen and some are being harvested as of last week.
Harvest usually begins around the first week of August and continues through most of October. But thanks to the early seedlings, when farmers were facing the prospect of a late planting season, harvest kicked off about a week early. Chile planted in the field was a little slower to mature, but transplanted seedlings were the first to produce green chile ripe enough for harvest. This week, chile planted in early spring is reaching full maturity and harvesting is getting underway.
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"We won't reach the peak of harvest until late August and into the first three weeks of September. But we're off to a good start, and, so far, the chile looks to be in really good condition,” he reports.
PROMISING GROWING SEASON
Last year, producers faced problems associated with a wet summer, especially curly top disease, which stunted chile plant growth. Preston Mitchell, who owns the Hatch Chile Store, says so far this growing season has been promising for producers. But he warns anything can happen with two to three more months of harvest ahead.
The New Mexico chile industry has faced a number of challenges in recent years, from weather concerns, a shortage of irrigation water, plant diseases and insect pressure. But perhaps most challenging has been problems associated with foreign competition and farm labor, especially over the last several years with the talk of tougher immigration laws.
Most chile farms in southern New Mexico are not far from the U.S.-Mexican border. But a crackdown on immigration policies and the lack of action by lawmakers has added to the difficulties of finding enough workers to harvest chile.
Chile producers say onion harvest across the region is also underway and many area chile pickers also work onion farms. While an early chile harvest is good for anxious consumers, it sometimes creates a problem for chile producers who scramble to find enough farm laborers to work their fields until after all the onions are harvested.
Last year, a pilot project tested the effectiveness of a new mechanical harvester. While some lauded the harvester as having the potential of being the answer to farm labor problems, others were not so optimistic.
According to New Mexico State University Extension specialists, chile bruises easily, which greatly affects the quality of the product. Too often, bruised chile will begin to turn during shipment, they say, sending an undesirable chile to market.
But the mechanical harvester designers have been fine-tuning their machine to be more gentle during harvest operations and say they are still hopeful that tweaking the harvester will provide adequate handling of fresh chile as the bugs are worked out.
In the meantime, hand picking remains the harvest method of choice, and finding enough farm workers by peak harvest time remains a concern. But for now, producers are guardedly optimistic about this year's chile season.
At the beginning of the year, New Mexico Department of Agriculture officials estimated the 2016 crop would be worth about $42 million from an estimated 8,000 planted acres.