By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico produced more than 53,000 tons of its most famous crop during the last growing season, meaning more chile peppers found their way into salsas and onto dinner plates than the previous year.
State and federal agriculture officials rolled out the latest numbers this week as New Mexico’s governor signed legislation that established the sweet smell of green chile roasting in the fall as the state’s official aroma.
New Mexico’s love affair with the hot peppers runs deep. Chile is one of the official state vegetables, it’s on license plates and it forms the basis of the state’s official question: “Red or Green?”
The state in 2014 even adopted its own trademark and certification program to protect the reputation and integrity of its signature crop, much like Idaho has capitalized on potatoes, Maine has its lobsters and Florida has its fresh fruits and juices.
The numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture show that more than 90% of the chile produced in 2022 was of the green variety.
The value of the crop was estimated at more than $46 million, about $1 million more than in 2021. Chile used for processing — for salsas, sauces and spices, for example — account for most of that value while fresh chile brought in about $4.4 million.
While production was up, the land used for planting was actually less than in 2021. That’s because farmers are seeing higher yields from their crops due to irrigation and cultivation improvements, said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association.
He said the latest figures are exciting news for the industry, which has faced its share of market and labor challenges in recent years.
“Our members are finally seeing normality after the COVID pandemic and labor, while still an issue, is slowly getting better,” he said.
Day also pointed out that more farmers outside southern New Mexico’s chile-growing belt are having success with peppers. About three-fifths of last year’s production came from counties other than Sierra, Doña Ana and Luna counties.
Doña Ana County is home to Hatch, a village at the edge of the Rio Grande that has come to be known as the “Chile Capital of the World.” Researchers at New Mexico State University have long said that soil conditions, warmer temperatures, the right amount of water and a longer growing season in the region result in a unique flavor.
Farmers are expecting a strong season this year — as long as the weather cooperates.
Forecasts calling for more moisture could help increase the availability of irrigation supplies, but Day warned that standing water in fields increases the potential for wilt and root rot diseases that could affect the harvest in late July and early August.