The challenges remain — cheaper foreign imports, a 73-percent crop acreage decline in the last 20 years, crop diseases, and farm labor uncertainties — which point to continued tests for the New Mexico chile pepper industry.

A new piece of legislation may help rekindle prosperity for the New Mexico chile industry.

Introduced by State Representative Andy Nuñez, New Mexico’s Legislature last year passed, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed, the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act (NMCAA). The New Mexico chile industry is banking that the law will crack down on New Mexico chile imposters.

On July 1, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) will begin NMCAA enforcement.

The NMCAA has some teeth to it. The final bill language reads, “It is unlawful for a person to knowingly advertise, describe, label, or offer for sale chile peppers as New Mexico chile, or to advertise, describe, label, or offer for sale a product as containing New Mexico chile unless the chile peppers or chile peppers in the product were grown in New Mexico.”

This law is meant to stop companies from selling chile products claimed to contain New Mexico-grown chile when in fact the pods were grown outside of New Mexico.

“If it’s called New Mexico chile then it should be grown in New Mexico,” said Gene Baca, the New Mexico Chile Association’s (NMCA) outgoing president. Baca is senior vice-president for Bueno Foods Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M.

The NMCA helped craft the legislation and worked with the NMDA in the rule-making process. The details of the law were discussed at the 2012 New Mexico Chile Conference held in Las Cruces in February.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted from NMDA but we have a really good start,” Baca said. “We (now) have a real basis to protect the name ‘New Mexico chile’.”

Chile is New Mexico’s signature crop with a deep heritage eclipsing across generations of New Mexico farm families. The New Mexico chile industry supports the law. Some believe the act needed more teeth since the NMCAA only covers chiles sold in New Mexico versus nationwide or internationally. Chile leaders believe the act is a starting point.

Incoming NMCA President Dino Cervantes told the group, “Our No. 1 success story last year was the Chile Advertising Act. We listened to growers and processors for their thoughts on the Act. The conclusion was it wasn’t enough. We knew this.” Cervantes is a partner in Cervantes Enterprises located in La Mesa, N.M.

NMDA has fresh and processed chile verification forms which require sellers to prove the origin of chile to New Mexico buyers if the chiles are touted as New Mexico grown.

“If you’re calling it New Mexico chile you have to file the verification forms,” said Ray Johnson, NMDA’s assistant director of standards and consumer services.

No. 1 chile producer

Chile peppers are the single crop where New Mexico farmers rank first nationally in production. New Mexico is America’s largest chile-producing state followed by Texas, California, and Arizona.

Chile in New Mexico is rotated with alfalfa, cotton, and other crops.

Beyond the NMCAA, a list of other challenges continues to test the New Mexico chile industry including stiff foreign competition. About 82 percent of the chile consumed in the U.S. is imported. Included among the largest chile importers are China, Mexico, and Peru.

The NMCA website, www.nmchileassociation.com, says foreign competitors can sell red chile cheaper than U.S. producers.

Foreign competition with lower production costs overseas is a major reason why New Mexico chile acres have plummeted over the last two decades. New Mexico acreage topped out at about 35,000 acres in the early 1990s. Acreage plummeted to about 9,500 acres last year; a 73 percent downturn in 20 years.

Some in the chile pepper industry blame the North American Free Trade Agreement for allowing Mexico to gain a larger foothold in the U.S.

China is trying to corner the domestic oleoresin market which accounts for 30 percent of New Mexico chile acreage. Oleoresin is dried chile ground into fine powder for use in food, pharmaceuticals, and pepper spray.

In addition, Baca says the domestic chile industry needs a steady supply of farm workers, increased automation, and plants with improved disease resistance.

“There are problems that have vexed the industry,” Baca told the group. “There are things we need to solve to stay competitive in the world market.”

On farm worker availability, Baca said, “We are looking for a statewide solution since the federal solution does not look like it’s forthcoming soon. Whether it can actually happen or not is a question mark. It does send a message to the federal government that we need something that works for U.S. citizens.”

Incoming President Cervantes discussed the need for expanded mechanization in the chile industry. He called mechanization the NMCA’s “top priority.”

“The only way we can continue to survive is if we can mechanize a good chunk of the chile industry,” said Cervantes.

Much of the chile grown for dried market sales already uses mechanization at the field or processor levels. Fresh chiles including jalapeno, cayenne, and green currently require more hand labor. This is where mechanization is now needed the most.

Baca praised the good working relationship between the NMCA and NMSU on research issues including mechanization.

NMSU’s Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) has spent three to four years engineering a mechanized green chile destemmer to replace hand labor in many instances. M-TEC engineer Ryan Herbon says the mechanized destemmer brought to market should remove 99 percent of the pod stems.

“We’ve seen some real success in mechanization projects,” Baca said. “On others we are regrouping.”

“We continue to develop ways for farmers to increase yields and improve production practices,” Baca said. “The second part of improved BMPs occurs at the processing level. Consumers demand safer, improved, and hotter-tasting products.”

Legislatively, Baca says the NMCA has formed new partnerships with the New Mexico Grocers Association and the New Mexico Petroleum Association for issues where the groups share common interests.

“These are great new relationships,” Baca said.

Always on the front burner is water availability in arid New Mexico. One of the latest water issues: Las Cruces is considering a water call that could take water away from agriculture and save it for population growth.