“New Mexico growers have a hard time finding the labor to hand pick the green chile the state is known for. Labor in Mexico is readily available and cheap, so their production costs are extremely low, and this gives them an advantage in the market,” says Hawkins. “Many New Mexico growers are giving up their chile acres in favor of other, more profitable crops, like cotton, and the decline has been steady since NAFTA was approved.”

She says foreign imports now account for 80 percent of all chile consumed domestically, creating a radically different market than in pre-NAFTA days. In addition, younger New Mexico growers are giving up a long-held tradition of growing chile because of foreign competition.

“The number of acres produced each year is driven by contract production, meaning the crop is sold before it is ever planted. No one is really willing or able to farm chile on speculation anymore. There is just too much competition from foreign imports,” she added.

Red chile growers in New Mexico remain price competitive because red chile can be harvested by machine, while green chile still relies on manpower.

“A great deal of research and testing is taking place in an attempt to mechanize green chile farming and eventually we hope this will even up the odds to the competition of cheaper chile grown in Mexico and South America. But being able to survive the wait may be more than New Mexico growers can handle. Production costs are going up and then drought conditions and the lack of water makes it nearly impossible to produce a profitable crop,” Hawkins said.

For a few green chile growers, a healthy local market has helped sustain them through the difficult years of NAFTA. Hawkins says when it comes to flavor, New Mexicans insist on locally grown chile, and that has helped to keep the state’s chile industry alive.

In addition to foreign competition and lack of available water for irrigation, Anderson said hail storms earlier this year damaged a number of chile fields around Las Cruces.

“Some fields were wiped out, some had damage and others were completely missed by the hail storms,” he said. “In addition, chile growers have pumped so much ground water for irrigation that the water table has dropped some 40 feet and the only water they can pump in some areas is high in salt content. We really need substantial rain and good snow melt next year if we hope to recover from the current drought.”

A new New Mexico Chile Association campaign launched earlier this year promoting state-grown chile is expected to have a positive impact. But even so, Hawkins fears that unless mechanized green chile farming can be adapted and water issues can be resolved, the road ahead for New Mexico chile growers could be a difficult one.