In the village of Hatch, New Mexico, in a chili shop dressed in red ristras – the ornamental garlands of chili peppers that often adorn state doors and windows – Jessie Moreno, the young farmer who owns the store, records sales, offers free samples and throws an iron basket -top chili roaster.
“This little festival is like a gold mine for us,” said Moreno, 21, pointing to three piping chili roasters. A pungent smoky aroma rose from the tumbled specimens of Annual capsicum and permeated the air. The city’s annual Hatch Chile Festival bolstered sales for two days, drawing around 15,000 Chilean connoisseurs and enthusiasts from as far away as West Virginia, Louisiana and Florida, in a welcome boost after the break. caused by last year’s pandemic. Despite this, Moreno and other local farmers couldn’t help but worry about the uncertain future of the crop and its profitability.
Continuing drought and an unprecedented labor shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic have rocked the agribusiness that is central to the state’s identity, said Stephanie Walker, chili specialist in Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, one of the few research centers in the world dedicated to the plant. “We’re definitely at a breaking point now. “
CHILI PEPPERS, which originated in South America, were introduced into the hard, iron-rich red earth of what is now New Mexico by Spanish colonizers over four centuries ago. But it wasn’t until 1921 that Fabián García, an American-Mexican horticulturist, developed the green long pepper after years of research and crossing plants from Hispanic home gardens. It quickly became a favorite with customers: Green chili is now coated in burritos and used as a seasoning for popular snacks like popcorn and crackers, even mixed with lemonade. When the leafy plant bears pods ripens in late summer, it turns into a red pepper, which tastes sweeter and mellow and is also used in a variety of New Mexican dishes. Although long green chili peppers are also grown commercially in Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado, locals and chili enthusiasts believe the combination of the high desert climate, sandy loam soil, and water of the Rio Grande gives the peppers grown in the Hatch Valley a distinctive character. flat and earthy flavor. New Mexico, which proudly calls itself “Chile’s capital of the world,” boasts of an official state question: “Red or green? ”
But now the state is asking a different question: Can its iconic culture withstand climate change?
New Mexico’s hottest product is delicate. It does not thrive below 60 degrees Fahrenheit and can be killed even by a light frost, but it can also be damaged by high temperatures; it does not fruit above 95 degrees. (Botanically speaking, chili peppers, like tomatoes, are fruits and not vegetables, as they contain internal and edible seeds.) This does not bode well in a climate that is getting hotter and hotter. and unpredictable every year. In just two decades, the southwest is expected to warm by more than the global average of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. According to an August report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it will also be increasingly affected by extreme weather events such as spring frosts and heat waves.
This year, the spring heat waves have accelerated the evaporation of snowmelt in the Rio Grande, leaving both the river and the Elephant Butte reservoir, which it feeds, with a decrease in the water supply for agriculture in the southern part of the state. With the reservoir hovering around 5% of its capacity in the spring and summer, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District has provided surface water to farmers in southern New Mexico for just 27 days during this growing season. This is one of the worst restrictions in the history of the irrigation district in more than a century, according to J. Phillip King, water resources consultant for the district. “It’s an unfortunate and disturbing pattern setting in – a multi-decade drought now superimposed on an increasingly arid climate. “
“It’s crazy that all of our water is gone.”
Back at his farm, Moreno looked at the 9.5 acre field he rents. “It’s crazy that all of our water is gone,” he said. “My father told me that before these two decades, he could draw water from the river from February to fall. But that’s no longer true: To supply his plants this summer, Moreno had to pump groundwater from his 30-foot-deep well. It cost him thousands of dollars to irrigate his fields in Chile using the pump.
And even this last resort might not last long. The increased pumping lowers the water table and the salt concentration in some wells has tripled or quadrupled, damaging the roots of the plant and causing wilt and other diseases. The legality of pumping groundwater is also pending. A U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit between New Mexico and Texas over pumping groundwater along the Rio Grande could further reduce the amount of groundwater available to Chilean farmers and reduce the area under cultivation, according to King, a witness testifying in the case. The case has now been going on for eight years and a decision is still pending.
Uncertainty over climate, water and water rights is a constant concern for Moreno. The son of two migrant workers who have worked in Chile’s fields and processing plants, he is proud to run his own Chilean family business, which he hopes to eventually pass on to his 1-year-old son. But he wonders if there will be water available for the peppers by then. “I really hate to see Chile in this valley come down,” Moreno said sadly.
Beyond the climatic woes, Chilean farmers are also facing a labor shortage. “Nobody wants to work,” said Rigo Gutierrez. He and his wife, Maribel, a bubbly farmer and Chilean worker in their thirties, run a seasonal hut three kilometers from Moreno’s shop. In previous harvest seasons, the couple hired four family friends to pick and roast. This year, they had to do everything themselves.
“This year is even worse than last year when everything was closed.”
Workers harvest the fruit almost entirely by hand before the peppers turn red at the end of October. Starting in July, pickers walk to the crop rows with plastic buckets, grab the pods with the right “press” and rush to the waiting vans as soon as their buckets are full. The state needs about 3,000 seasonal workers for the $ 50 million industry, but this year it is short about 1,350, said Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association. “This year is even worse than last year when everything was shut down,” Robbs said. He blamed federal pandemic unemployment benefits, which expired in early September.
As an incentive, in mid-August, industry executives negotiated with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to use $ 5 million from the federal pandemic relief fund to increase salaries for workers. Chilean pickers and workers in processing plants up to $ 19.50 an hour, nearly double that of the state. minimum wage of $ 10.50 per hour. By early October, Robbs said, the incentive had eased the hiring shortage for farms and processing plants, although the problem was far from over.
Some small-scale farmers, scientists and labor rights activists are ambivalent about the one-shot injection, saying the worker shortage is less about unemployment benefits than historical injustices in labor and immigration. . According to the Border Agricultural Workers Project, a nonprofit organization that has organized Borderland farm workers for more than 30 years, the average annual salary of immigrant workers for chili picking has only increased by about $ 1,000, from $ 6,000 to $ 7,000. However, the cost of living in the United States has almost doubled from what it was in 1993, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
During the pandemic, the grueling nature of the work was compounded by the lack of personal protective equipment, sanitation facilities and hand washing. “(It’s) not that there aren’t any workers available for the Chile harvest,” said Carlos Marentes, director of the Border Agricultural Workers Project. “It is a problem of safety, wages and working conditions.
Over the past few decades, chili fields have given way to less labor-intensive, more profitable crops like pecans and alfalfa, which, ironically, consume much more water than chili. . As a result, the chili harvest area in New Mexico has increased from an all-time high of 34,000 acres in 1992 to about 8,000.
Yet here in the Hatch Valley, farmers like Moreno maintain the tradition of cultivating a beloved and iconic plant. As the chili peppers were thrown into the roasters behind him, Moreno told me that the money he makes at the Chile Festival will bring him one step closer to his dream of owning a 30-acre farm. “My parents came from nothing and built it,” he said, referring to the store he runs and the acres he currently rents. “And I’m not about to lose him just yet.”
Wufei Yu is an editor at High Country News. We welcome letters from readers. Send him an e-mail To [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the political editor.