THE CHILE CHRONICLES

by Carmella Padilla

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

There are approximately 44 million acres of farmland in New Mexico and nearly 14,000 farms. Of that land, an average of 30,000 acres is devoted to chile each year, grown among an estimated 250 to 300 farmers across the state. Since 1990, those farmers have consistently made chile one of the two most profitable crops in New Mexico. With the exception of 1992, a record year for chile production in the state, chile was second only to hay most years in cash receipts. In 1992, the crop was valued at $67.3 million, straight off the farm. After processing, the value increased nearly fourfold, exceeding $250 million.


Chile Peppers

Each year more than half of the state's chile is grown in the southern counties of Dona Ana and Luna. About 700 acres of chile, with an estimated market value of $1.5 million, are cultivated in the northern counties of Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. The overall production of chile is largely determined by region. In Northern New Mexico, for instance, the growing season is only half as long as in the more temperate south. The size and market value of a farmer's crops thus depends as much upon the landscape as upon the grower's expertise.

The farmer who tends her isolated chile fields in the north grows mostly to feed her family. What she has left, she will sell at a roadside stand or at the area farmers market from the bed of her truck. The farmer who oversees the large fields in the south grows principally to fulfill contracts with hot-sauce makers in Louisiana.

New Mexico's climate is optimum for growing vast yields of high-quality chile. Irrigation is essential to the process for farmers across the state, as precipitation during growing season rarely exceeds seven inches a year. A chile pod grown in Northern New Mexico has a flat, or square, shoulder separating the chile from the stem. A southern New Mexico chile pod's shoulder is sloping, almost round. Beyond this it is impossible to generalize. Wherever chile grows, the soil conditions are so diverse, the geographic contrasts so extreme, that literally every single pod grows in its own way, at its own pace.

Jesus, Chimayo, New Mexico
Jesus, Chimayo

 

Perhaps the only thing one can say about chile in New Mexico is that it grows successfully virtually everywhere, at practically every bend, bump and rise in the road. Chile grows as green at the base of a remote Abiquiu canyon as in an open field in the fertile southern valley. It turns red beneath the same golden sun and azure sky. From cottage industry in the northern villages to agribusiness in the vast farms in the south, the cultivation of chile brings the scattered, independent segments of New Mexico together as a whole.

To a farmer anywhere in New Mexico, faith in nature is the ultimate reason to farm. In the northern village of Chimayo, 30 miles above Santa Fe, faith has as much to do with the survival of the community itself as with sustaining local farmers. The small Hispanic farming community is also one of the most important religious sites in the New World. Countless thousands of pious pilgrims are lured to the legendary Santuario de Chimayo each year, hoping to find miracles in a handful of holy earth. In the fall, many return on a pilgrimage of a different sort: to sample the year's chile crop.

Unlike the hybridized chile plants commonly cultivated in southern New Mexico, Chimayo chiles are considered land races, the scions of the first chile seeds planted by the Spanish in the area. Small and crooked with a skin as thin as the outer layer of an onion, Chimayo pods are known for their subtly sweet flavor and mild-to-spicy heat. In the early part of the century, chile was then so valuable that it was an acceptable replacement for cash at the area mercantile. Today chile can no longer be exchanged at area stores, although its value may be greater than ever before.

Driving past the "Chimayo Holy Chiles" sign, along the winding road that accesses the far-flung houses of Chimayo, one arrives at the home of Gonzalo and Ermenda Martinez, who grow authentic Chimayo chile on a half-acre plot ringed by giant sunflowers. The chile they grow is sold at the summer farmers market in Santa Fe, but more than for profit these two Chimayo natives grow to preserve the quality of life their ancestors knew. It is a way of life the two have practiced together since their marriage in 1950, when Gonzalo was 19 and Ermenda 13. From their spcious adobe home, the couple has sustained the land-based lifestyle that once defined the villages of northern New Mexico.

"My mother always used to say, 'If you plant it with joy, it will grow,'" Ermenda says.

Santa Fe writer Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published in 1998 by the Museum of New Mexico Press.

Other Stories by Carmella Padilla

Carmella Padilla Biography

photographs courtesy Philip Greenspun


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