Imports, small harvest hit famed New Mexico chile peppers

Sun Sep 7, 2014 9:26pm EDT
 
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By Joseph Kolb

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - The green chile peppers roasting aromatically outside an Albuquerque supermarket are perhaps New Mexico's most famed and recognizable product.

But these pungent palate pleasers are under threat from shrinking harvests and tough competition from foreign imports.

"It's the essence of New Mexico," said Shawn Barela, a lover of chile peppers just having made a five-hour round trip to Hatch, a village in Dona Ana County world renown for the quality of its chile.

"It's got a unique taste you can't find anyplace else," Barela said, watching a store clerk turn a large metal drum to roast one of the two 40-pound sacks of green chiles he had brought back with him.

The annual chile festival in Hatch, which has fewer than 2,000 residents, is an exuberant affair that each Labor Day draws 10 times that number of visitors.

September is marked by the aroma of roasting chile in supermarket parking lots and on backyard grills throughout New Mexico. Locals bring peppers to rotate in large barrels over a propane flame, slowly darkening the skin from green to light brown in a process that not only brings out their flavor but helps preserve the chiles for freezing and use in meals for much of the rest of the year.

Year-round sunshine in the southern part of the state, combined with nutrient rich soil in the Hatch Valley, make home-grown chiles the finest in the world, locals say.

But few like to talk about the diminishing crop. The size of the New Mexico chile pepper harvest shrank by more than 40 percent over the last decade, from nearly 110,000 tons in 2004 to some 65,000 tons in 2013, according to the U.S. and New Mexico Departments of Agriculture.   Continued...

 
Farmers harvest chile peppers in Hatch, New Mexico in an undated photo provided by the New Mexico Tourism Department.  REUTERS/New Mexico Tourism Department/handout via Reuters