The smell that wafts over street corners and farmers’ markets from New Mexico to Denver’s Federal Blvd. and scores of other places this time of year says just one thing; It’s war! Of course, this border war, is more for bragging rights than territory or fruits of battle. After all, no one really loses. It’s all about chile!
This annual war of the noses pits the self-proclaimed ‘big kid on the block,’ Hatch and New Mexico chile, against the upstart, ‘jewel of Colorado’s Banana Belt’, Pueblo, and its more meager but still formidable and delectable offerings.
Some of the claims made by both sides echo a similar tone. Pueblo’s Dalton Milberger, a second generation chile farmer, says his crop is better because of Pueblo’s temperate climate. “It’s ideal,” he said. Chile, he believes, grows best on Pueblo’s St. Charles Mesa because of the perfect balance of hot days and cool nights. It gives his pepper crop “the thick membrane that produces more flavor.”
Rick Ledbetter, Chairman of New Mexico’s Chile Growers Association, also claims the key is climate. “We’re dry and don’t get too much rain,” he said from his pickup as he headed to a day of peddling chile at one of the many farmers’ markets he hits each season. “But we cool down at night and that combination is very good for production.”
Both Milberger and Ledbetter plant their crop in early April. Pueblo’s is harvested in late August or early October. New Mexico growing season is a few weeks longer. And while they both want bragging rights, getting it off the vine in tact and in volume, presents challenges which are both out of their hands.
“The most devastating thing to a farmer,” said the 23-year-old Milberger, “is weather.” Too much or too little rain can doom a crop. Ledbetter adds one more element to this tricky equation. “Hail is our worst fear. It can devastate a chile crop.” But nature has other tricks, too, including a late spring or a late freeze.
The other thing out of their hands is labor. “We’re having trouble getting workers,” said Ledbetter. Chile is a crop that needs to be hand-picked. Because the current administration has cracked down on immigration levels, workers are at a premium. If you’ve noticed higher prices for chile, it’s because wages for labor has impacted that side of the equation. And until someone can invent a mechanized method for harvesting chile, it’s a trend that is not changing anytime soon. Bushel prices this season are in the $25-$30 range. Roasting can sometimes be an added charge.
Because chile has become so ingrained in Southwest cuisine, no reasonable distance is too far to go to buy whatever will take you through the winter. On a recent Friday, Noah Westby had traveled from Boulder to a Hatch Chile stand near I-70 and Federal Blvd. in Denver. “It just has a unique flavor profile,” said Noah Westby, owner of Boulder’s Dagabi Restaurant. Westby said of the chile that has won awards for his restaurant. “It’s the most requested item.”
“The smell is fabulous,” said chile buyer Bill Parks, who was traveling from Littleton to North Denver when he smelled the roasting chile. “I just buy ‘em up,” he said, as he closed the deal on a couple of bushels.
But not all Hatch chile is the real deal. While the I-70 and North Federal ‘roasteria’ has a posted sign affirming ‘genuine Hatch,’ many places are selling a counterfeit product, said Ledbetter. The bait-and-switch got so bad, he said, that his association had to go to the New Mexico State Legislature. “We got an act passed and if it’s (the chile) not verified, we can shut them down.”
There’s also another issue that Ledbetter and his association members are dealing with. While demand for chile remains high, statewide production of chile---Hatch and others---has been in decline in recent years.
While New Mexico, like Colorado, are high desert climes, New Mexico’s water situation is more serious. And some crops, especially pecans---a big-ticket nut---have nudged their way to the front of the pump. Some chile farmers have opted out of chile and into pecans, onions and even apples, crops that don’t require the same delicate treatment or labor at harvest. Last year, New Mexico’s chile crop was down by ten percent. It’s a decade-long trend.
But one farmer’s woes are often another’s bonanza. Pueblo chile is neither encumbered by pecans, onions or shortage of water. And its unique geography has caught the eye of at least one important buyer. Boutique grocer, Whole Foods, no longer sells Hatch or New Mexico chile. Since 2016, the natural food giant has featured only Pueblo chile in its Colorado, Idaho Kansas and Utah operations. Distribution from southern Colorado for Whole Foods simply made more sense than buying New Mexico.
Despite the many blue ribbons and accolades Pueblo chile has garnered, it is still a minor player in the chile game. Milberger said his operation is only “about forty acres.” In a typical year, he said the harvest will be in the neighborhood of “500,000 to 600,000-pound” range. But it’s quality, especially, his crown jewel, the Mirasol, so named because of the way it grows---facing the sun---is unsurpassed. Other farmers on the Mesa, he said, plant and harvest similar amounts.
Still, while not among the giants in the chile world, the annual harvest has been a $1.1 million shot in the arm to the local economy. And, because of the playful nature of the crop, it now adorns the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce literature and memorabilia. Additionally, the state has also begun selling a Pueblo Chile license plate.
But all other factors aside, in 21st Century pallets---especially in Colorado and New Mexico---it’s ‘Chile. It’s what’s for dinner.’ “If it’s there, I’ll eat it,” said Tony Aragon, Pueblo native and owner of Denver’s Alliance Windows. “Pork chops without green chile are good. Add green chile, they’re great!