While red and green chili peppers still sit on top of the list as New Mexico's favorite food crop, commercial production fell sharply last year according to a USDA year-end crop production report and confirmed by the latest crop statistics from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

The official report indicates fewer acres of chili peppers planted and harvested in 2013, down about 16 percent from the previous year. USDA says 65,000 tons of New Mexico chili peppers were produced in 2013 compared to nearly 78,000 tons in 2012. Over a decade ago New Mexico chili pepper farmers were harvesting over 100,000 tons of green and red peppers each fall.

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Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University, says while the drought played a major role in lower production numbers last year, chili pepper producers in the famous Hatch production area had to rely on pumping groundwater instead of having ample irrigation resources available from Elephant Butte Reservoir and the Rio Grande River.

The groundwater in the region is known for its high salinity and New Mexico State University extension officials say pepper plants simply do not thrive without adequate irrigation water from the river. They report high saline soils rob the plants of vitality and adversely affect overall production.

Walker says because of the ongoing drought and irrigation water shortages in the middle basin region, producers intentionally reduced acreage last year. Total New Mexico chili pepper acres declined from 10,000 acres in 2012 to just more than 9,000 acres last year.

But drought and water quality were not the only factors that contributed to production declines in 2013.

According to Hatch area producers, farm labor shortage also resulted in a smaller harvest last year, a problem that continues to plague agriculture across the Southwest.

In an interview with Southwest Farm Press in September, 2013, New Mexico Chile Association President and chili processor Dino Cervantes warned of agriculture hardships if Congress fails to adopt effective immigration laws that allow for an adequate farm worker program.

"Certain segments of agriculture are experiencing a serious threat over labor shortages, especially farms that depend on field workers to harvest a crop or move a crop to market," Cervantes said. "The principal cause behind the struggles our industry has experienced in recent years is the lack of available labor."

Cervantes says the state's famous chili pepper industry is one of the largest home grown industries in New Mexico, employing over 4,000 people. But as important as that may be for those who dedicate their time, money and property to chili pepper production, there is a greater reason to keep the industry fluid, and that is the sense of state pride that every New Mexican feels toward their favorite food.