The climate of New Mexico is pitch perfect for growing the infamous chile pepper — usually. That’s all changing because of climate change (but don’t tell New Mexico residents that’s what we blame the problem on). June Rutherford is a New Mexico farmer who has been growing chile for the Great New Mexico Chile Taste-Off competition for about 80 years. That’s no small feat, but according to her it’s never been as difficult as it is right now.
“The weather hasn’t been a bit good for chile,” she said. “It’s been hot. Hot and dry.”
Rutherford, age 95, grows the Hatch chile, a famous worldwide brand. The job has become all the more difficult because the last 20 years have been drought-filled. The reservoirs are lower than ever, especially because the Rio Grande is running shallow. The lack of water is a problem for those who rely on irrigation to water their crops. Rutherford is most definitely one of those people.
Chris Franzoy, 50, Rutherford’s great-nephew, owns two businesses: Young Guns, Inc. and Hatch Chile Factory. “This year, we were faced with more challenges from weather and labor than ever before,” Franzoy said. “We’ve got a much higher cost, but we’re not able to pass that along to the consumer.”
The Hatch chile requires a nearly desert environment to grow well. That means hot days and mild nights. But the heat nowadays is too much. It’s not unusual for residents of New Mexico to experience daytime temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures that high result in the blistering of chile skin. More importantly, the heat gets in the way of a consistent cycle of growth.
Edgar Grajeda is another grower, the owner of Grajeda Farms, who has known nothing but hot, dry weather his entire life. But even he notices the difference. “You put all your effort into it,” Grajeda says, “all of your money, but if there’s no water, you won’t get anything. It’s getting drier and drier.”
It might seem silly, but chile is a staple of life and living in New Mexico. “It’s who this state is,” according to Teako Nunn, a 70-year-old resident of Hatch who owns a business the locals call Sparky’s. “For the people that live here, it’s like milk, or American cheese, or ketchup, or mustard. It’s like that, except better.”
The higher prices for growing result in higher prices for everyone else, even though the majority of the burden is placed on the grower and margins are slimmer now than they were a decade ago, or two decades before that.
Residents know to expect the situation to worsen still, and they don’t know how much more their businesses can take. The New Mexico chile might soon become a memory rather than a popular state food. And for the people who love it so much, that’s a tough pill to swallow.