Doña Ana County is the top chile producing county in New Mexico with about 3,900 acres in 2009. Jeff Anderson, NMSU Extension agronomy and horticulture agent for the county, calls the status of the county’s chile industry “shaky.”

Anderson says the major causes in acreage decline over the years include (in order): disease pressure; urban development with rising land prices; an aging grower population; and labor.

“Before more restrictive immigration laws and 9-11 it was easier to get laborers from Mexico who were willing to work in the chile fields,” Anderson said.

He believes the chile industry will level out over time in part due to ongoing NMSU genetic pest and disease resistance breeding, including the control of phytophthora.

“Once we get a handle on breeding for disease resistance and improving the soil health there will probably be an upsurge in chile production,” Anderson said. “But we must also have mechanization to keep competitive and moving forward.”

In conversations with chile growers, Anderson says some growers are considering switching from annual crops including chile to pecan production. Chile in New Mexico is usually rotated with cotton, onions and alfalfa. 

Even with current higher cotton prices, Anderson does not see cotton as a current, viable economical crop locally for now due to overproduction overseas.

“There are exciting things ahead, however, with gossypol-free cotton,” Anderson said. “Gossypol-free cotton seed can be used for cattle and chicken feed, plus human consumption since it’s very high in protein. “This may be an incentive to give the cotton industry a push and keep chile as a viable crop for New Mexico.”

Doña Ana County’s top acreage crops, in order, include pecans (more than 25,000 acres), alfalfa, onion and chile.

In addition to formal presentations, pepper conference attendees participated in red and green-based chile tours, and a tour of the Hatch, N.M., chile-growing region, the chile production capital of the world.

Those on the green trip toured Border Foods, Inc., the largest green chile and jalapeno processing facility in the world located in Deming, N.M. Most of the chile processed at the plant is grown in New Mexico with some brought in from Mexico.

Chile pepper production provides about 15,000 full- and part-time jobs and about $465 million to the New Mexico economy.

cblake@farmpress.com