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Decline for the enshrined chile pepper

chile peppers new mexico

You could make a jingle out of it: to be enshrined is to decline.

This saucy proverb is inspired by current efforts of the New Mexico state legislature to, as it were, cast the beloved chile pepper in bronze. As lawmakers celebrate green chile, farmers struggle to make it pay (

The legislature is considering whether to consecrate the smell of roasting green chiles as the state aroma. New Mexico senator Bill Soules wants to make roasted chile the official state aroma : NPR (I didn’t know states had aromas—at least any that were worth memorializing.) The chile is already the state vegetable, the state question is “Red or green?” and the legislature is also debating whether a state chile song needs to be added to boot. Listen to New Mexico’s “state chile song” (

richard smoley produce blueprints

But to exemplify the saying that began this article, this is coming at a time of the chile’s longstanding decline in the New Mexico agricultural landscape. State production of the crop has been dwindling for decades now.

“Total chile production for 2021 in New Mexico was 51,000 tons, a 22 percent decrease from the 2020 revised production of 65,600 tons,” reports USDA. NM-2021-Chile-Production.pdf (

Total acreage was 8,700, with 8,500 harvested.

Most of the state’s chiles are grown for processing, but the decline in fresh production is even more astonishing: 4,540 tons in 2021 as opposed to 13,775 tons in 2020.

For a look further back, 2002 acreage was 18,000 (for both fresh and processed), and production was 96,400 tons.

Bulletin_2004.pdf (

Usually, the websites of growers’ associations bubble with enthusiasm (justified or not), but not the one of the New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA), which states flatly that “the industry is in steep decline.” New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA) Mission (

And usually, the presidents of such organizations are the crop’s biggest boosters, but NCMA president Glen Duggin says he’s giving up on the crop. “How can you sell it for a proper price when they’re importing it from Mexico?” he was quoted as saying on the University of New Mexico radio station website.

The reason? Mexico. Chile Importations From Mexico Heating Up at the Columbus Port of Entry | U.S. Customs and Border Protection (

More specifically, “reduced regulation and cheap labor,” says the NMGA site. Now, it points out, that about 82 percent of chile consumed in the United States is imported.

“Automation is the only solution,” the NMGA site says.

Red chiles can be picked mechanically because they all ripen at once. Green chiles have to be picked by hand because they mature at different times. One new machine from Israel is showing promise for green chiles, and a new green variety has been announced, with the proposed name of New Mex Odyssey. It has a higher height for fruit set and allows for easy pedestal removal (which is necessary for processing).

Of course, we still don’t know whether improved mechanization will offset the cost advantages of imports.

As for the answer to the state question, 2021 production was 46,500 tons for green and 7,720 for red. But then green chiles yielded 11.6 tons per acre, while red only yielded 1 ton per acre.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.