New Mexico Leads Nation In Chile Pepper Production
Chile peppers have a long history rooted in the sandy soil of New Mexico, the nation’s leading producer of the spicy staple.
The fruit of the Capsicum plant, chile peppers have been in the region for hundreds of years, says Denise Coon, program coordinator for the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
“Pueblo Indians brought up chile peppers through trade,” she says. “The types of chiles that we grow really prefer arid, warm climates and sandy soils, and that’s exactly what we have.”
The state’s chile growers produced more than 73,000 tons in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worth a combined value of nearly $40 million.
Estimates show that the industry has a $400 million impact on the state and creates 5,000 jobs.
“It’s extremely important, not only economically, but culturally,” Coon says. “Chile peppers are part of the everyday life around here. People practically eat them in every meal.”
The majority of New Mexico’s chile production is centered in three counties – Dona Ana, Hidalgo and Luna – in the southern part of the state.
The most commonly grown peppers in New Mexico based on recent crop yields are: long mild green chiles, long hot green chiles, red paprika chiles, red cayenne chiles and green jalapenos.
While essential in New Mexican cuisine and common in decorations, the chiles also are used for their pigments.
A southern New Mexico plant extracts colors from chiles to use them as natural dyes, and paprika is widely used in red-tinted consumer goods like cosmetics.
Despite the state’s dominance in chile pepper production, New Mexico’s farmers have faced concerns in recent years.
The state’s chile production dropped about 31 percent between 2004 and 2006, a loss in value of nearly $11 million, according to agricultural statistics.
Flooding in 2006 was partly to blame for the drop in harvesting as well as lower yields per acre.
The squeeze from international growers is seen as an issue for New Mexico’s chile farmers, who are looking to automate more of their growing and harvesting process in order to compete.
“The industry has to mechanize or else we’re going to go out of business because of competition from overseas,” says Lou Biad, secretary of the New Mexico Chile Association.
Biad, who also owns the Biad Chile Company, a Las Cruces processor of red chiles, says that as the industry increased in value, it drew the attention of foreign exporters and now chiles are grown everywhere from China to South Africa.
Lower wages overseas make it difficult for domestic growers to compete, Biad says.
“Most of the larger growers already have machines to harvest,” he says. “We’re just trying to perfect them to make them more efficient.”