LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico’s chile acreage inched upward slightly last year, but the crop’s long-term future still faces plenty of challenges.
That’s according to experts at the state’s annual chile conference held last week in Las Cruces.
In all, about 9,600 acres were harvested in 2012 – a modest 100 acres more than the previous year, according to federal numbers presented.
It’s the second year in a row the crop acreage increased, after hitting a nearly 40-year low point in 2010.
“We’re sort of stabilizing,” said Dino Cervantes, 2013 president of the New Mexico Chile Association.
And while that may be seen by some as a positive, the problems that caused the New Mexico pepper industry’s decline are still there, experts said. Among them are higher labor costs than in competitor countries, a crop that’s vulnerable to plant-killing diseases and an irrigation water shortage locally. Doña Ana and Luna counties are the top two chile-producing counties in the state.
Lou Biad of Las Cruces, who owns a chile-processing company, said chile farmers in China, Mexico and Peru pay their workers a fraction of U.S. labor costs. The difference is $8 to $10 paid per hour domestically to $2 per day paid in other parts of the globe.
“The biggest problem we have is competition from other countries, where they can produce a product at a much lower cost,” said Biad, while attending the conference. “The whole world is after this market.”
Plus, Biad said farmers and processors in other nations have far fewer regulations to contend with.
“I have stacks of rules and regulations that the Chinese dealers don’t have to deal with,” said Biad, whose company owns three plants.
Some 210 people attended the two-day event at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, including representatives from chile-processing plants and salsa companies, chile growers and chile scientists, organizers said.
A number of vendors were present, too. David and Sharon Crawford, distributors from just north of Artesia, N.M., were advertising a crop fertilizer, called Organic Gem, made from liquified fish. They claimed it would boost growth of chile and a spectrum of crops.
“It’s organic; it’s not going to hurt anyone or anything,” Sharon Crawford said.
Researchers from the New Mexico Chile Institute, based at New Mexico State University, announced the completion of a draft map of the chile genome – a major step toward making genetic improvements in the chile crop.
There are potential genetic modifications to chile that could combat prominent chile diseases, said NMSU Associate Professor Stephen Hanson. For instance, a gene to deter a type of pathogen, known as phytophera, has been found in potatoes, he said.
“We’re trying to see if we can move this gene into chile,” he said.
The research that will be needed is expensive and could take a while, Hanson said.
“Lots of this is work in progress that will bear fruit in future years, hopefully,” he said.
The chile institute has reached the $500,000 mark in raising money to pay for an endowed chair – essentially a permanently funded researcher who’ll be dedicated to chile, said NMSU Professor Paul Bosland, co-chairman of the conference. The group is aiming for $1 million. Sales of chile products by the institute – which has a new social media presence – go toward the endowment, he said.