New Mexico Chile getting trademark to protect reputation

Posted at: 08/18/2014 12:12 PM
Updated at: 08/18/2014 6:02 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4 and Kristen Garcia,

Farmworkers up and down New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley are hauling in the state’s world famous green chile by the ton right now – the harvest surviving a challenge from an extra-wet monsoon season, but still vulnerable to foreign competition.

Rain is both a blessing and a curse to the chile grower – the right amount at the right time can lead to a record-breaking crop – but too much at harvest time can wipe you out. At Glen Duggins’ place near the Socorro County village of Lemitar, “Wipe Out” is just an old tune on the radio. The harvest is robust, just like the heat and flavor of the chiles themselves.

“We did have some rain but we just had luck on our side,” said Duggins, who has been growing chile for more than 30 years.  "Every time it rained, we needed the water, and it hasn’t hurt us. The chile is just beautiful – the mild, the hot, the extra hot – looks like a bumper crop!”

On Monday Duggins had 18 field hands harvesting five different kinds of green chile in addition to jalapenos. He said finding experienced hands who want the work and have the permits to do it is another challenge he and other farmers face every year. He said you don’t find workers like Raphael Gomez every day.

“They call me the human machine,” Gomez said proudly. “I guess it’s because I can make up to 115 bags a day, and the rest of them, they can only get like maybe 80. I like to make the money. I work long hours, sleep and eat good. Fast hands!”

Mechanized chile picking is still a dream for the future. No one has yet developed a machine that can harvest the chile pods without damaging or killing the plants, which bear fruit long after the middle of August.  The chile Duggins grows with his son Kyle is called the “ Five Star” brand. You can find it at Sprouts and Fruit Basket stores. Each burlap bag is clearly marked.

“We started marking our bags 25 years ago,” Duggins said. Every bag that comes out of here has our name – Lemitar, New Mexico – Five Star Chile.”

This week, the state will launch  a  “New Mexico Certified Chile” trademark that is aimed at putting the state’s chile in the same protective status as Idaho potatoes or Florida oranges. Foreign competitors are known to flood American markets with less expensive, lower quality chile, even falsely labeling it as grown in New Mexico. Farmers say bogus chile siphons off money and weakens the reputation of the New Mexico product.

“Look at the people working in that field,” said Duggins’ neighbor Alan Brawley, a third-generation chile farmer who now makes his living as an agent for buying and selling farms. “That money stays right here. And let’s say you have a truck hauling alfalfa in here from Mexico. They don’t have to comply with our DOT rules, and they’re our direct competitor!”

More chile competition comes from China, India and Peru, not in the form of fresh green chile but red powder and pulp products. The stakes are high. The chile industry supports more than 4,000 jobs in New Mexico, and has an economic impact of more than $400,000,000. Last year, New Mexico farmers harvested just under 9,000 acres of chile, which is only about one quarter of the record year of 1992 – 35,000 acres harvested.

The hope is for a strong comeback – keeping New Mexico green – unless of course you want it red!