While U.S. chile consumption has grown more than 600 percent in recent years, foreign imports now account for about 80 percent of all chile consumed domestically, leaving a smaller slice of the pie for New Mexico growers.

Producers in New Mexico say another problem they are facing is that young farmers are abandoning chile in favor of more profitable crops. While traditions run deep on the farm in New Mexico, making a profit is more important.

“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,” Hawkins says.

While research continues on better methods of mechanized production of green chile in New Mexico, a move that would greatly reduce labor costs, other challenges exist including disease pressure and more recently drought conditions.

“Chile grows well in arid climates but water is still required. Irrigating from ground wells increases production costs considerably, and New Mexico hasn’t escaped the drought conditions experienced all across the Southwest,” Hawkins said.

Working in favor of local chile production is the insatiable appetite for red and green chile of native varieties. New Mexicans remain the largest consumers of chile peppers grown in the state.

“New Mexico consumers are savvy about chile quality and variety and there will always be a demand for Hatch chiles, for example. Chile is still roasted in parking lots each fall and restaurants are loyal to native varieties. This is working in our favor, but this alone can’t salvage an industry threatened (so much) by foreign competition,” Hawkins says.

But recent increases in state production and chile acres provide some encouraging news for growers. Hawkins says the industry is very active in marketing and branding efforts to promote the state’s leading commodity crop.

For more information about New Mexico’s leading crop, visit the New Mexico Chile Association Web site.