Persistent Drought Threatens New Mexico Chile Industry


The worst-ever Rio Grande drought is posing plenty of challenges this season for chile growers in New Mexico.

One of the challenges relates to groundwater being applied to crops in the absence of river water. The groundwater is saltier and can stunt plants and reduce yield.

"It's affecting all crops. The cause and effect is throughout the valley," said Bobby Kuykendall, who grows habanero and ancho chile in Dona Ana County between La Union and Berino. "We're getting less disease problems with pump water versus canal water, but the salinity still has an effect on chile."

"So we are really hoping for a good rainfall to leach some of that salt from the soil," said Stephanie Walker, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist.

As of mid-April, about 60 percent of New Mexico's chile crop had been planted, just slightly behind a five-year average for progress at that point, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Overall acreage statewide has dropped sharply over the past two decades, following an all-time high of 34,500 acres in 1992, according to USDA numbers.

After a low point of 8,700 acres in 2010, statewide chile acreage bumped up to 9,500 and 9,600 acres the last two seasons, a somewhat positive sign, industry officials have said.

Farmers are likely to curtail or even eliminate their chile acreage, now that the region is entering its third drought year, said Jeff Anderson, a horticulture extension agent in Dona Ana County, which is among the top two producers of chile in New Mexico.

"I can't see it going up or even being the same with everybody knowing the drought is going to be worse this year," he said.

The drought means chile farmers pay more to grow the crop, as they pay irrigation district fees but don't get water, in addition to the fuel costs to pump groundwater.

Added to that is stiff pepper-growing competition from other countries, such as Mexico, where labor costs are much lower than in the United States.