In New Mexico, the fall harvest of the state’s staple and iconic chile crop plugs along, albeit at a greatly reduced level — and with more early season red pods than usual — in comparison with even a decade ago.
In glaring contrast, chile production just across the border in the Mexican state of Chihuahua marches forward to the tune of a pepper piper on a massive scale, supplying both the domestic Mexican and foreign export markets.
Francisco Gomez Rodriguez, treasurer of the Chihuahua State Vegetable Sanitary Committee, told El Diario de Chihuahua that some 78,000 acres of chile are under cultivation this year in the northern Mexican border state, or about 10 times the 8,100 acres (7,700 harvested) of peppers sown in New Mexico last year. Gomez pegged the value of the Chihuahua state crop at approximately $375 million.
Of the planted acreage in Chihuahua, about two thirds of the chile is destined for domestic plates, while approximately one third (26,000 acres) goes to the tariff-free U.S. market, according to Gomez’s numbers.
The export portion of the Chihuahua crop alone dwarfs New Mexico’s entire chile crop.
Gomez said Chihuahua ranks as Mexico’s No. 1 producer of jalapeño peppers, but also grows cayenne, chilaca, serrano, guerito, and other chile varieties. Apart from the United States, Chihuahua chile now hits Germany, France and England, he said. For the harvest, workers are drawn from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Campeche, Sinaloa and Sonora, as well as Chihuahua, the ag industry spokesman added.
Chile farming in Chihuahua confronts challenges that include pepper weevil infestations, competition from China as well as Mexican states such as Sinaloa and Zacatecas, compliance with health and sanitary regulations required for export-quality crops, water availability and, above all, climate change.
During the last three years, a state program known as Diapausa has facilitated applications of the insecticide Malathion in places where pepper weevils could hatch; insecticides are additionally employed during different stages of chile production and processing. Some reports indicate pesticide resistance developing among the chile-killing weevils.
Pesticide usage has generated controversies.
According to El Heraldo de Chihuahua, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) detained more than 80 tons of dry Chihuahua chile during the last two years because of concerns arising from chemical applications.
Impacted producers from the southern reaches of Chihuahua state disputed the lab information used to halt the shipments, arguing that the FDA’s actions jeopardize a local economy specializing in the production of chile chipotle, the trendy product that’s created from smoking and drying jalapeños.
“There are many (producer) families here,” Camargo Mayor Jesus Saenz Gabaldon said earlier this year. “This is the top production zone for jalapenos.”
In another pocket of the Chihuahua chile empire, chilaca chile growers in the municipality of Allende were facing the loss of up to half their crop this summer due to wacky weather.
Chile farmer Alberto Mendoza said sudden temperature shifts from hot to cold, aggravated by extreme variations in precipitation, were wreaking havoc with his crop and even causing chile to “abort” as stunted pods fell off the plants before they were ripe.
Buffering growers like Mendoza for their losses somewhat was the increase paid to chile farmers from the two or three pesos per fresh kilo of previous years to the four to six pesos reportedly paid this year.
Following NAFTA, a dramatic shift
Chihuahua chile farming was in a state of crisis in the early to mid 1990s, a time when pepper growing reached its zenith in neighboring New Mexico. For the 1993-94 growing season, the first year of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Chihuahua chile harvest amounted to less than 22,000 acres.
But after NAFTA took hold, Chihuahua chile farming grew by great leaps and bounds. Statistics from the federal Agriculture Secretariat’s agricultural commodity information service (SIAP) reveal a steady increase in Chihuahua chile plantings from approximately 46,000 acres in 1999 to about 80,000 acres in 2005. From 2006 to 2012, the harvest dipped, hovering around the 59,000 acre mark.
In 2013, both planted and harvested acreage were up from 2012’s totals, while plantings in 2014 and 2015 came in at the 78,000 acre range. One media report attributed increased rainfall and greater supplies of reservoir water to the most recent surge in chile production.
Except for 2003, 2005 and 2008, when significant crop losses were registered, SIAP’s figures for planted as opposed harvested acreage correspond closely. A 2010 product competitiveness study by the Chihuahua state government ranked chile as among the state’s five most profitable crops.
In post-NAFTA New Mexico, on the other hand, chile acreage never topped the 34,500 acres harvested in 1992, even plummeting below the 10,000 acre mark every year after 2009, years when severe drought and restricted irrigation water deliveries also came into the picture.
Principally, Chihuahua chile is grown in two broad swaths of Mexico’s largest state. The first zone comprises irrigation districts south of the state capital of Chihuahua City, while the second one is located in the north-central municipalities of Ahumada, Buenaventura, Casas Grandes, Janos and Ascension. The northern municipalities enjoy easy access to U.S. border crossings in New Mexico and Texas. There chile shipments can zip to processors on this side of the border.
As in the United States, Chihuahua and Mexican chile is grown for both the fresh and processed market, where big companies predominate. In Mexico’s case, the processing companies La Costena, San Marcos and La Morena procure a large part of the harvest.
Additional sources: El Diario de Chihuahua, September 12, 2015. Article by Manuel Quezada Barron. El Sol de Parral, July 23, 2015. Article by Marcos Merendon. El Heraldo de Chihuahua, March 16, 2015. Article by Jesus Manuel Ruiz Sanchez. Elcomerciodecolorado.com, October 2, 2014.