If Congress doesn't properly address a farm worker program in its plans to reform immigration laws, New Mexico's heritage chili pepper industry could falter and slowly crumble into obscurity as growers turn to more profitable crops.

That's what the president of the New Mexico Chile Association told Southwest Farm Press in an interview last week, emphasizing that now is the time to put aside political divisions and party rhetoric in an effort to reach a speedy conclusion for a problem that could leave farmers without a way to survive because of growing labor shortages in the fields.

"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," says Dino Cervantes, who, along with his family, is involved in both chili pepper farming and processing operations in Southern New Mexico. "For instance, we are currently suffering a shortage of workers in the chili fields because the onion crop was late coming out of the ground this year, so as the chili ripened and harvest time arrived, most of the temporary farm workers we hire each year were still in the process of picking onions out of the ground."

 

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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.

Chili peppers in New Mexico are not just an option, they seem to be a mandate.

Each year fresh chili pepper vendors set up portable roasting cages at parking lots, roadside pull-outs and grocery stores all across the state to supply the high demand for the unique aroma and taste of New Mexico's favorite food.

"There is no shortage on demand," Cervantes chuckles. "Every one wants to get in on the action and get those first fresh green and red chili [peppers] of the season. They will eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner and what they can't use fast enough they will freeze for a cold or rainy day."