With 30 days or less before the first Hatch chiles are ready for picking in New Mexico's famous Messila Valley near Las Cruces, most growers say they are hopeful this year's much anticipated green chile harvest will match or exceed last year's crop success.
In spite of mostly dry conditions in late June and early July, recent rain showers have elevated hopes that this year's crop may be larger and healthier than last year's harvest. New Mexico Agriculture Department officials are saying more acres were planted this year, and that too adds to the hope of more chiles to meet the growing demand.
According to the latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA-NASS) statistics, 2016 turned out to be a productive year for chile growers across the state. Both the number of acres planted and tons of chile harvested in New Mexico were up compared to recent years. And after a number of slow years for the industry as a result of weather, the prospect for a harvest to match or surpass last year's profitable crop has many growers encouraged.
OPTIMISTIC FOR 2017 CHILE CROP
"We had a fairly decent crop last year in spite of a number of problems. We got rain when we needed it last year, but we suffered spotty damage from bad weather. We also had disease issues that cropped up, but nothing that really set us back too far," reports Tony Trujillo, who owns a small co-op farm with his cousin near Hatch. "We had our doubts about last year, but unless something happens in the next few weeks, this year looks to be a better."
Last year New Mexico farmers planted an estimated 9,200 acres of green chiles across the state, most of them in the Mesilla Valley region.
"Last year we planted a few more acres than in in 2015," Trujillo said, though not all of those acres produced good chile because of weather and some disease. "But we added to the total acres planted this year, and have no reason as of right now to think we might not exceed last year's harvest numbers. That's our goal at this point in the season."
USDA-NASS state statistician, Longino Bustillos, who operates out of the agency's Las Cruces office, says harvest numbers vary every year depending on several factors, including disease, drought and other climate and weather conditions, crop rotations, and the total number of acres planted that reached harvest stage without major incident. He said for last year's harvest production, only a few problems occurred throughout the growing season.
USDA estimates that out of the 9,200 acres of planted chiles last year, about 8,700 were actually harvested. Total production for 2016 managed to reach an estimated 69,000 tons, valued at about $50 million. USDA says that compares with about $41 million total crop value the year before (in 2015).
Officials at the New Mexico Chile Association credit the widening popularity of New Mexico's historical chile crop to better marketing nationwide.
TJ Runyan, another produce shipper in the Mesilla Valley, agrees. He says New Mexico chiles are starting to reach into new areas.
"Last year we had chiles being shipped to distant domestic locations like New York and other areas on the East Coast. Hatch chiles are becoming more in demand thanks in part to the success at branding the product," he said.
He warned, however, that branding efforts are challenged by large chile processors who tend not to recognize or differentiate between New Mexico chiles and other chile products produced in other areas. Some of the most fierce competition to New Mexico chiles are specialty farms cropping up in Northern Mexico where input costs, especially local labor costs, are much less.
New Mexico's chile producers admit that increasing competition, availability of water, and problems associated with finding enough farm laborers to pick the harvest are the biggest problems the New Mexico chile industry is facing. The most troublesome of the three may well be the labor issue.
Growers say President Trump's stand on immigration is a stumbling block to finding enough labor willing to work in the U.S. because of a growing fear of elevated immigration enforcement, but perhaps even more so, more chile farms are popping up in Northern Mexico, and one-time migrant workers are finding it easier and nearly as profitable to stay on the Mexican side of the border and avoid paperwork and litigation involved in a temporary worker program in the United States.
They also point to possible future problems associated with trade issues between the U.S. and Mexico. While the North American Free Trade Agreement may not benefit New Mexico chile producers, a viable source of migrant workers does, and some fear that trade disagreements between the U.S. and Mexico may muddy those waters even more if tensions between the two neighboring nations increase.
For this year, however, most chile producers in the Land of Enchantment remain cautious but hopeful this may be another good year for the New Mexico red and green chile industry.