Chili peppers in New Mexico are not just a culinary option, but an unspoken kitchen mandate.

Cervantes and other industry experts say demand for famous red and green New Mexico chili remains high and ongoing product campaigns keep the peppery twins in front of chili pepper fans. But even if the skies opened and the river fills to capacity, if adequate farm labor is not available to bring the crop in during the fall, then the industry will suffer the consequences.

As one Hatch farmer put it, "sooner or later the rains will return, but with no one to pick the chili, how can you market a product you can't deliver?"

Drought, a changing climate, soil salinity, water availability and farm labor have long made contributions to the successes and shortcomings of the New Mexico chili pepper industry. But industry experts say a shortage of farm labor in recent years has ranked as high a risk as water shortages.

Cervantes and Walker say university and industry researchers continue to look at mechanizing harvest operations and hope to develop a successful chili pepper picker. But outside of developing and implementing a mechanized harvest system, all hope for growth and vitality of the industry in New Mexico relies on finding solutions to farm labor issues.

New Mexico labor officials admit the state is facing a possible unskilled labor crisis. And it's not just the New Mexico chili pepper industry that is suffering. Other labor intensive agricultural operations include dairies and fruit and vegetable operations. They also point out that in addition to agriculture, many other types of industry in New Mexico require skilled and unskilled workers, including the hospitality, construction, cleaning, home health care, and food processing industries.

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With the close of the 2013 season, USDA has valued the New Mexico's chili crop at less than $50 million, down about $16 million from 2012, and industry experts say the dual challenges of adequate water and farm labor seem to be no less troubling than last year.

But chili pepper producers around Hatch say they remain hopeful that the state's rich chili pepper tradition will continue in spite of the challenges it faces.

With one eye on Washington in hopes of a permanent farm labor policy and one eye on the sky in the hope of rain, chili pepper growers in New Mexico now begin the process of planning a crop for the new season.

 

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