With New Mexico chile harvest just a couple of weeks away, early indications are the 2012 crop will be smaller than expected. Growers and Extension specialists say water shortages and foreign competition are the major pitfalls to what they hoped would be a bumper year.

Overall, chile acres have increased across the state in recent years, from 8,500 acres in 2010 to 10,000 in 2011. While the total number of chile acres this year is yet unknown, Jaye Hawkins, New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA) administrator, reported earlier this year that less water from the Rio Grande and pressure from foreign chile growers is hurting this year’s prospects. But she says so far she remains cautiously optimistic that once harvest is complete, chile numbers but will be close to last year’s yield.

In spite of that optimism, no one argues that this year has been a challenge for growers. The semi-arid chile growing areas of Southern New Mexico particularly were heavily affected by an International Boundary & Water Commission’s (IBWC) decision to release water from the Rio Grande River to Mexico in April, a move that limited the amount of water allotted to irrigation districts in the southern part of the state. Under terms of that plan, millions of gallons of water were released to Mexico from Elephant Butte Reservoir, forcing irrigation districts to ration water to New Mexico and Texas agriculture users.

Chile growers were forced to rely on ground water to irrigate, increasing production costs and affecting the total number of acres planted.

According to Jeff Anderson, Doña Ana County horticulture Extension agent, a drive across his district seems to indicate fewer planted acres compared to last year.

“We won’t know the final number until USDA releases that information early next year, but I am not seeing as many acres of chiles as I did last year. I think our chile production is going to be down as a result,” Anderson reports.

The bigger problem, however, appears to be the impact of foreign chile production, especially across the border in Mexico. Hawkins and Anderson agree that since the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, foreign-grown chile has presented a challenge to New Mexico’s chile industry because their product can be sold for less.