NM green chile harvest expected to be strong

July 27, 2009 1:41:35 PM PDT
Harvest time for New Mexico's beloved green chile crop is just weeks away, and experts predict it's going to be a strong and plentiful harvest this year, to the delight of chile growers and chile-eating junkies.The chile fields look good, plants are loaded with peppers and the harvest should be plentiful, said Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist and chile breeding program researcher at New Mexico State University.

"It's going to be a very strong season. We didn't have disease pressure or fungal and insect issues as in years past. As long as Mother Nature cooperates for the rest of season, we will have an excellent crop," Walker said.

The hotbed for chile production lies along the southern Rio Grande corridor in areas such as Hatch and the Mesilla and Las Uvas valleys.

That's where Ken DeWees gets his stock of fresh green chile to roast and sell starting this weekend at his Chile Traditions business in Albuquerque.

"There are a few farmers that are ready to harvest, and I've had about 200 phone calls in the last three days and I've got about 17-18 pre-orders, waiting for me to ship them chile out of state," said DeWees, who feels so confident in this year's harvest that he's holding a drawing offering free chile for a year.

Extra moisture caused some disease damage on the chile crop in Eddy and Chaves counties so far this season in the eastern part of the state, said county extension agent Woods Houghton. The area mainly grows 5,000 acres of red chile and paprika used for dye and extracts.

"We've gotten a lot of rain that came around two weeks ago, and that's caused some pod end rot and target spot on leaves and sometimes that can affect yields," Houghton said. "It might reduce yields by 8-10 percent, but most of our growers are diversified enough that they can rebound."

The state's signature crop has had some rough breaks the past few years due to disease and insect problems.

In Luna County, the state's top chile producing area, 25 percent of the crop was affected by disease and parasites during the 2008 harvest. But the state still managed to produce about 60 tons of chile last year worth $42 million.

Luna County extension agent Jack Blandford said this season the county's chile fields "look phenomenal" with some growers already preparing to harvest.

"We have all been having a hot, dry environment and that's allowing us to have productive chile. That also means that growers are not having to manage as hard as last year," Blandford said.

DeWees said chile prices have gone up slightly this year. He's charging $29.95 for a 38-pound sack of roasted fresh green chile, as opposed to last year's price of $28.95.

"Farming has just been a little higher this year. Seed prices and the overall price of equipment is more and they have to pay more to the employees to pick the chile," he said.

Hatch Valley chile farmer Jimmy Lytle said his crop is about two weeks ahead of schedule and he hasn't had "any problems whatsoever." Despite the bright outlook, the 65-year-old farmer knows you can never be absolutely sure things will go as planned until the peppers are plucked off the plant.

"You can still have hail storms, excessive rain, bird problems, a little bit of everything," Lytle said. "But the crop is gold right now."