If you stop in a restaurant and order a spicy Southwestern dish and are asked if you want red or green, then chances are good you're in New Mexico.
It's a common question at restaurants throughout the state and refers specifically to whether you prefer green or red chili peppers (or sauce) with your meal. The customary and accepted response to the question is usually either green, red or Christmas, the later meaning you prefer both.
What this means, as if you didn't know, is that when it comes to chili peppers, New Mexico is King. It's the state's favorite, and almost its biggest, farm product. Only New Mexico's famous pecan and alfalfa crops keep pace with chili peppers when it comes to popularity.
Once a closely guarded secret, word has gotten out, especially about the green Hatch chili pepper grown in the southern part of the state, and tens of thousands of brand new chili pepper fans have cropped up outside of the enchanted borders of New Mexico.
"The Hatch green chili is growing in popularity far and wide," said Chris Biad of Biad Chili Company of Messilla Park, New Mexico. "This year, with the help of a dear friend, we sent Vice President Joe Biden some roasted green chili, and last year we sent samples to various members of Congress."
It must have worked. For the first time ever, a pair of Washington, DC, grocers ordered green Hatch chili peppers this month and actually roasted them in front of their store. The word is, they sold like hot cakes.
"The Hatch green chili is growing in popularity rapidly, and demand is growing," Biad said.
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Along with his brother Mike, the family-owned business wholesales large volumes of smoked green chili peppers to a number of customers in states across the nation. It all started when senior members of the Biad family picked up roots in Brooklyn and headed west to New Mexico where they settled in Hatch and started farming in pursuit "of the American dream."
"We are well into harvest now and for most growers, it looks like a very good year," Biad said. "We were forced to use groundwater this year instead of river water for irrigation, but while it has been more costly, it has helped in terms of timely watering of the crop. For most growers, I would say, it is turning out to be a productive year."
Timely rains didn't hurt
Recent rains also helped. The way it stands now, Biad says harvest should be complete in 3 to 4 weeks.
"We had a big onion crop this year and many farm workers are still harvesting that crop. But we are well underway and we are adding more farm workers every week to help get the chili crop in," Biad added.
Water and labor are the two major problems the chili pepper industry faces every year according to growers. Competition from foreign grown chili peppers and the possibility of plant disease are the other two major factors to consider in growing New Mexico peppers, Biad says.
"We're hoping for immigration reform that includes a meaningful farm worker program, but because harvesting chili is labor intensive, that remains a major concern for not just this year and next, but for years going forward.
"Foreign competition provides pressure some years and other years it's not so bad. But not finding people to work when the crop is ready to come out of the fields—that can be a real problem."
At first glance, it would appear that the state's chili pepper production is falling. Certainly far fewer acres are being planted now than last decade. But New Mexico State University's James Libbin, an agriculture economics expert, says advances in farming technology have increased yields on fewer acres.
In addition, the increasing popularity and demand for green chili peppers is being aided by new chili pepper farms in West Texas and even Arizona. Libbin argues that nearby farms that produce green chili, like those just across the line in Texas, are at least in the same area, but he admits competition from farther abroad has been and can remain a major problem for local growers.
But ask any New Mexicans or a growing number of Texans where the best green chili peppers are grown and most will quickly tell you "in Hatch."
Last year the New Mexico legislature adopted a bill that prevented the word "Hatch" to be included on labels of any product that did not originate in New Mexico. Growers from around Hatch say that bill didn't go far enough because, in their opinion, other peppers grown in other areas of the state are still no match for "real" Hatch chili peppers.
Not everyone in the state agrees, but in addition to a quality product, there is little doubt that Hatch area growers have done a good job "selling" their brand. Central Markets (and parent company H.E.B Food Stores) is hosting another Hatch Chile Festival in their chain of Texas outlets this month, as they have for the last several years. Not only are fresh green Hatch chili peppers roasted in front of their participating stores, but a number of products containing Hatch chili peppers are featured.
"It's like the smells and flavors of Santa Fe," remarked one H.E.B. store customer on the Texas coast this week. "We can't wait for Hatch chile [chili peppers] to arrive and the roasting to begin."
Biad said next year could prove to be a more challenging year for the New Mexico chili pepper industry though.
"For one, we haven't gotten the rain to refill our reservoirs or to replenish our groundwater supply, so unless it rains a lot soon, that may be a major obstacle," he said.
Salem-based Grower Jerry Franzoy agrees, but says of greatest concern is whether there will be enough farm labor to harvest a crop next year. He says stricter immigration enforcement by federal authorities has cut down on the number of Mexican immigrants who cross into the U.S. and achieve residency status, and that labor force is needed if the industry is to survive.
"If something doesn't happen soon, we're going to be in trouble for picking chili," he said, referring to stalled immigration legislation in Washington.
Biad says most New Mexicans are not willing to work harvesting chili peppers and says migrant workers represent the only hope until technology can devise a way green chili peppers can be harvested safely like their red chili pepper counterparts.
"Advances are being made in developing a green chili picker and a machine for de-stemming them as well," adds Biad.