Peak harvest for New Mexico's famous Big Jim green chile variety has arrived, and so far producers in the chile-rich Mesilla Valley just north of Las Cruces are reporting a robust yield of the popular pepper.
Roberto Cantu is a “green chile jobber,” a title he gives himself to reflect how he makes money each fall harvest season in New Mexico.
"I have been doing this for a number of years now. I buy green chile from farmers across the region, from roadside stands, wherever I can get fresh picked chile. From there, I take some to grocery store parking lots or even street corners in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho where I roast them and sell them to whoever wants them," Cantu chuckles. "And just about everyone wants them, from residents to tourists. Who doesn't like roasted green chile in the fall?"
Cantu says he and his wife have made the state's annual chile harvest a side business for many years now. Roberto has picked chiles, bought them wholesale and roasted them for others, has distributed them across state lines and has sold them to restaurants, and he says his wife has been making chile ristras, or hanging pods of green chiles that eventually turn red and adorn kitchens and porches of homes and businesses all across the state.
"While we don't own the land to grow chile, we still depend on the chile season to add to our income each year...to get us ready for holiday spending," he smiled.
Cantu and other native New Mexicans who utilize the chile season to help pay the bills say they are hopeful they can continue to depend upon the industry in the years ahead. In fact, Roberto says with the new varieties of the famous New Mexico chile being developed by researchers and breeders at the New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute, he believes the demand for chile products will only get better in the years ahead, a position supported by Paul Bosland, director of the Institute.
Bosland says when it comes to Hatch chile, there is not just one kind of chile [pepper] variety. That's why when it comes to heat, flavor and size, there are so many variables from farm-to-farm, even row-to-row, depending on the grower.
He should know. Bosland and his associates at the Institute have been developing new varieties for a number of years, an ongoing effort to create better, more flavorful chiles. Some of the more successful varieties include the NuMex, developed several years back to deliver the best flavor components in both mild and hot varieties. Bosland, who is also a NMSU Regents Professor, says the variety offers a superior chile for consumers.
“All the best is NuMex,” he says.
A visit to the Institute's chile gardens, often referred to as the “Mother of Chile Gardens,” is all the evidence one needs to realize that when it comes to researching chile peppers, the Institute is the clear leader.
Developing a successful new chile variety, however, doesn't happen overnight. When NuMex was first introduced, growers reported a healthier chile in the field and one that produced a fair amount of meat. But they felt the new variety lacked in that traditional Hatch chile flavor. After tinkering with the variety, researchers redeveloped the NuMex Heritage 6-4 and the NuMex Big Jim varieties.
The result was happy growers and happy consumers.
Researchers also developed NuMex Sandia Select with a higher heat level. The Sandia chile was originally developed as a smaller red chile with a thin wall that would lend itself to drying and grinding into powder for use as seasoning.
“The growers thought it would be better if the Sandia was more like a traditional New Mexico green chile in terms of size and the amount of meat it produced. So [that's what] we did,” Bosland said.
The work performed at the NMSU Chile Pepper Institute has helped to not only sustain the state's chile industry but also has helped it to adapt to the changing demand for more competitive varieties, especially since growers in Texas, Colorado, Arizona and even Mexico are now producing various forms of chile peppers to take advantage of the growing popularity of the fruit (Chile peppers are technically classified as a fruit.).
The challenges have been many, say industry officials. Not only must they compete with chile grown across the U.S.-Mexico border—produced at a lower cost—but those same Mexican chile producers are competing for the same seasonal pool of farm workers, most of them Mexican nationals.
New Mexico growers say they are paying a premium for seasonal farm workers, but they must compete with Mexican growers who offer work without the need to cross the border, legally or illegally. And with a U.S. political climate these days that is less than friendly to immigrant workers, it is making it more difficult to attract workers during the critical days of chile harvest.
According to reports, this season is no different.
But the demand and love of New Mexico chile runs so high across the Southwest, the combined efforts of growers, chile industry officials, breeders and researchers at the Chile Pepper Institute, and loyal chile consumers have helped to keep the industry alive.
The best evidence of that may well be the aroma of roasting chile that is easily found this time of year in every corner of the state.