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.
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.
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
"My mother always
used to say, 'If you plant it with joy, it will grow,'" Ermenda
Santa Fe writer
Carmella Padilla is the author of "The Chile Chronicles," published
in 1998 by the Museum of New Mexico Press.
Stories by Carmella Padilla