The Southwest chile pepper industry is at a major crossroads and time will determine if mechanization and other advances will help save the industry hit hard by foreign competition.

“Our challenges as the (New Mexico) chile industry all revolve around labor,” said Dino Cervantes, treasurer, New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA). “Our foreign competitors have a huge advantage over us in terms of (lower-priced) hand labor costs. Until we have mechanization, foreign producers will have an advantage over us.”

Cervantes is a partner in the family-owned Cervantes Enterprises in La Mesa, N.M. He discussed pepper issues during the 20th International Pepper Conference in Las Cruces, N.M., in September. About 150 pepper researchers, processors, growers, and other industry representatives from 20 states and 12 countries attended the event.

About 80 percent of the chile peppers consumed in the United States are imported, largely due to lower hand labor costs.

China produces more than 50 percent of the world’s supply of all types of peppers – about 14 million metric tons annually. Mexico is the second largest producer followed by Indonesia, Turkey, Spain and the United States. California is the largest all-pepper producer in the U.S. with about 320,000 metric tons annually.

New Mexico is the nation’s largest chile pepper grower, followed by California, Arizona and Texas.