Posted March 22, 2005 by Nick Lindauer in Peppers

New Mexico's chile pepper farms

By Tom Haines, Globe Staff | February 27, 2005

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Beyond the hustle of Interstate 10 and the iron quiet of a railroad track, two greenhouses guarded heat on a dank winter morning at the southwestern edge of the United States.
Inside, grids of planters held sturdy shoots weighted with young chile peppers, some wide and green, others lean and red.

Jit Baral, a scientist at New Mexico State University, stood near plump pods and noted the irony that capsaicin, the crystalline alkaloid that peppers produce to deter mammals from eating them, has become an addictive ingredient for people seeking a kick from enchiladas and tamales, pork ribs and tender steaks.

”That’s the backside for the peppers. It’s good for us,” Baral said.

By ”us,” Baral meant chile pepper-lovers from old Mexico to the dusty flats of East Africa, from the Himalayas to the crooked coasts of the western Pacific’s Savu Sea. Baral is a native of Nepal, where dishes are often flared by potent peppers of the Thai varieties. But his words also take deep root in southern New Mexico, center of chile farming in the state, and the nation.

Here, New Mexico’s long green chiles, a group that includes the mild NM 6-4, as it’s called, on up to the flame-throwing Lumbre, grow thick-skinned through the summer months, roast on the roadside all fall, and flavor food with a decidedly Mexican influence in homes and restaurants even in the short, soggy days of February.

When you first arrive in southern New Mexico, it’s hard to believe anything, anymore, comes from this place. Roadside historical markers give hints of cultural heritage, telling tales of the 1598 expedition northward along the Rio Grande by the Spaniard Juan de Oñate, or the fierce resistance delivered centuries later by the Apache leader Geronimo. Red lettering on a road map marks the exact spot where, on July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated above high, dry earth.

Today, though, Las Cruces is dominated by an all-American sprawl of pavement spiked by Bennigan’s and Applebee’s, Burger King and McDonald’s, Red Lobster and Chili’s, the ubiquitous chain that, New Mexicans will point out, spells ”chile” like a Texan. The desert terrain sweeps from the sharp slopes of the Organ Mountains westward across the Rio Grande, creating the illusion that everything is visible beneath the big sky and reenforcing the sense that, at its peopled center, New Mexico has become just a Wal-Mart world.

But away from central streets, fields frame country highways, and 40 miles north of Las Cruces the two lanes of Route 185, the old valley road, wind into Hatch, population 1,668, self-proclaimed Chile Capital of the World.

On a Saturday afternoon warm enough to soften mud clumped between tidy rows in fallow fields, Pete Atencio, 30, chile grower, wholesaler, and roadside salesman, steered his pickup truck toward a patch of late-harvest New Mexico 6-4s that he had agreed to trade to another wholesaler for a plot of hotter Sandia peppers.

”It used to be that it was a Hispanic thing,” Atencio said. ”But now all you’ve got to be is New Mexican and you eat green chile. And when you leave, you get withdrawals. I have a customer in Alaska who would pay just about anything to have me send him a sack of chiles.”

Atencio returned across the narrow run of the Rio Grande, its low banks thick with head-high mesquite bushes, then eased to a stop in front of Hatch Chile Sales, his roadside stand at the center of the town’s paved grid of streets.

A passing truck driver was trying to negotiate a purchase with Atencio’s mother, Rosa, who speaks limited English. The trucker, with tight Wrangler jeans and stringy blond hair trailing from the back of his baseball cap, called his wife in Texas, who gave him a quick and basic Spanish lesson.

”Muy caliente,” the trucker said several times to himself, practicing, before turning to tell Rosa he wanted the chiles ”very hot.”

She held up two plastic bags of frozen green chiles. Pete Atencio took the trucker’s phone and explained to the wife in English the different kinds of chiles for sale. She ordered a sampling, adding only one condition before hanging up: ”Nothing mild.”

In New Mexico, hanging ”ristras,” or strings, of dried chiles, turned red from green late in the growing season, have decorated doorways for centuries. A bigger market, on supermarket shelves and restaurant tables across the country, has emerged only in the past 50 years or so.

Farmers here complain that the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement has made it hard to compete with chile peppers grown in Mexico. In 2003, New Mexico chile sales dropped below $40 million, down 20 percent from the year before. Still, the chile crop is one of the most important in a state more suited for raising cattle, or rattlesnakes.

So scientists at New Mexico State cross-pollinate peppers from around the world to tinker with heat and taste and find those varieties with the most resistance to phytophthora, a chile-killing fungus. Each fall, roadside stands around Hatch, Deming, Columbus, and other chile-growing areas are flush with green chiles, which can grow as large as cucumbers, and Wal-Mart parking lots across the state become home to flame-roasters, where 40-pound bags of fresh-roasted chiles sell for $7.

Year-round in the town of San Antonio, to the north, the Owl Bar & Cafe sells its famous green chile cheeseburgers for $3.25, and Roberto’s, a Las Cruces cafeteria, serves salsa that makes eyes water and noses drip.

In homes and restaurants, chiles are diced to flavor meat or eggs, for example, or served whole, stuffed with cheese. Often, the taste is subdued, a slight tingle at the edges of an otherwise mild dish. But hard-core chile eaters want more, as pointed out by Atencio.

”Any restaurant in New Mexico will serve you salsa as an appetizer,” he said. ”If the salsa ain’t hot, the restaurant ain’t all that good.”

Eating chiles, of course, is just the end of a long road from seed to sauce. From March planting through September harvest, thousands of migrant farmworkers, mostly Mexican and many illegal immigrants, navigate southern New Mexico’s bobbing highways and fields irrigated with as much as four feet of water per year.

Some workers, particularly those with many children, can turn hard work harvesting lettuce in Texas, chiles in New Mexico, and apples in Washington into a somewhat stable life, renting rooms in Hatch for the season. Many others arrive before dawn to pick chile pods by hand through the day’s hottest hours, then board old school buses each afternoon to return to the flat streets of south El Paso.

It is a one-hour ride past the billboards along Interstate 25 and then Interstate 10 south and east into central El Paso, where buildings inspired by Bhutanese monasteries rise on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso and the shanty slums of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, hug the southern banks of the dry Rio Grande, only a few hundred yards to the south.

Near the base of the Santa Fe Street Bridge, crowded with foot traffic from one country into the other, farmworkers gather for meals and sleep in the offices of the Border Agricultural Workers Project, an advocacy group near Cesar Chavez Border Highway.

On a quiet February Friday, as a few dozen men arranged mattresses in the foyer, Roberto Holiday, 69, a tall, lean native of Mexico’s Chihuahua state, talked about his family in Mexico, those who had welcomed him as an orphaned boy and given him an English name. Holiday, his hair slicked back, his collared cowboy shirt crisp and striped in teal, purple, and black, did not complain about difficult working conditions, about the fact that he had no health insurance, or earned roughly $35 a day, at best, in the fields of southern New Mexico.

He regretted only that a lifetime of farmwork and two decades harvesting chiles could not strengthen him against age.

”My back gets tired,” he said. ”I cannot harvest as much as I used to.”

The kitchen in the border workers’ center that night offered, for $3, a dinner of fried tortillas stuffed with cheese, beans, and rice. There was no prime New Mexico green chile in sight. On a small shelf above the cook’s stove, alongside cumin, onion powder, and oregano, sat a tall plastic bottle of Tone’s ”Red Pepper,” harvested in fields unknown.

Holiday walked past the kitchen to the public rest room. As there was no farmwork on a soggy winter weekend, he hoped to earn money the next day as a ”liebre,” or hare, jumping into the car of someone looking for help with odd jobs around El Paso. He tapped a razor on the sink in preparation for a close shave, then leaned toward a faded mirror.

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog