March 30, 2014 Updated: March 30, 2014 at 11:25 am
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A combination of dwindling water supplies in southern New Mexico and the availability of farm labor are taking their toll on one of New Mexico's most famous crops: chile.
Statistics released Thursday by state and federal agriculture agencies show the amount of hot peppers planted, harvested and produced in the drought-stricken state in 2013 was down from the previous year.
There were 65,000 tons of chile produced last year. That's about 16 percent less than the nearly 78,000 tons produced the year before and significantly less than a decade ago, when production topped more than 100,000 tons.
Fewer acres were grown in 2013, and officials said yields were lower for most varieties, including hot and mild long green chilies.
"Certainly the drought has an effect," said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University.
Walker explained that farmers have had to rely more heavily on groundwater pumping to irrigate their crops because of the low river and reservoir levels that have plagued the state in recent years. That pumping has resulted in more salinity, which affects the yield of the chile plants.
New Mexico is also losing acreage to west Texas and Mexico, partly because of the cost and availability of labor. In 2013, 9,000 acres of chile were planted in New Mexico, down from the 10,000 planted in 2011.
New Mexico State University researchers are trying to solve the labor issue through the development of machines that can harvest the crop. Walker said one focus is on the development of a one-row harvester and finding out which chile varieties would work best with mechanized harvesting.
Some small companies are getting closer to developing a machine for de-stemming green chilies, she said.
Those technological developments could be game-changers for New Mexico's chile industry, Walker said.
Chile has been a staple of New Mexico cuisine for centuries, and the Hatch region has become world famous for the flavorful hot peppers grown there. Chile is also the state vegetable and serves as the basis for the official state question: "Red or green?"
Despite marketing efforts and the attractiveness of New Mexico's green chile and red chile-based spices to national suppliers, the statistics show the value of the crop dropped to an estimated $49.5 million in 2013. That's almost $16 million less than its value the previous year.
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM