Come Hell Or High Water

Hatch Chiles Are Still The King Of Peppers

Katy June-Friesen
5 min read
Rows of Hatch green chiles ripen on the vine. (Katy June-Friesen)
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Here’s one way to tell if you’re New Mexican, through and through. When Hatch flooded, did you have nightmares about chile dearth? Thought so.

We’re delighted to report the annual Hatch Chile Festival came and went as usual, in all its pungent glory. And the precious peppers survived—most of them, at least. Some farmers did lose crops and, sadly, the town of Hatch didn’t fare well either. But they’re a sturdy bunch down there, and they’re trying to dry out. The neverending monsoon season is making that difficult (seriously, New Mexico looks like Iowa these days).

This year at the Hatch festival, there were some new visitors in FEMA jackets wandering the municipal airport grounds. Perhaps they had their first green-chile-on-a-stick (one big pod stuffed with cheese and deep-fried), chile chips (deep-fried chile pieces) or chile peanut brittle.

The harvest down south isn’t over yet. Red chiles, which are green at first but allowed to ripen further, are harvested after the green. The two colors used to come from the same plant, but growers now plant special breeds for each. Red or green, farmers are having a hard time getting their pods out of the mud. And a wet chile is not a happy chile. Chiles thrive in toasty desert country. Farmers are worried the wet will bring “chile wilt,” a fungus that destroys the plants and spreads fast.

Tiny Hatch (pop. 1,600) is the self-proclaimed “Chile Capital of the World.” Our Land of Enchantment is the top producer of chiles in the country (you knew that), and the name “Hatch” indicates a bona fide pod. However, when asked why their chile is so good, most Hatch Valley natives don’t offer a long narrative. “It just is,” they say.

Farmers in the valley say their chile’s superiority has to do with the rich soil and dry climate of the area—along with a history of developing and breeding chiles with folks at nearby New Mexico State University.

Not surprisingly, economic globalization has not been kind to Hatch Valley. The chile industry as a whole contributes more than $200 million to the state economy each year, and the value of harvested chile in 2005 was $47 million. (Doña Ana County, home of Hatch, produces nearly one-third of the state crop.) However, these numbers were much higher before 1994, when NAFTA was implemented. Since then, the United States has imported more and more cheap chile, particularly from Mexico. New Mexico chile farmers are still trying to figure out how to compete.

June Rutherford, who’s been farming chile all of her 82 years, has noticed considerable change since NAFTA took effect. She used to export a large amount of chile to California. Now, none. Most chile is still harvested by hand, and so the cheaper labor in other countries continues to threaten what was once a lucrative endeavor. Researchers have not yet been able to perfect a chile-harvesting machine. This means it’s also cheaper for local roasters and ristra-makers to buy their chile beyond the border.

Of course, says June—who’s also dealt with mucky fields lately—the outsider chile’s taste doesn’t even compare to Hatch chile.

Local palates wouldn’t think of disputing her. At the festival, June’s booth is thick with customers—and dozens of her family members. She’s a known authority. June’s Special Hot Red Chile powder, packaged in one- to two-pound Ziploc bags, sells well. After all, her father, Joseph Franzoy, was the first chile farmer in Hatch Valley in 1915. She and three of her brothers still farm there. And yes, she still gets out in the fields.

She also helped create one of the four most common chiles in the valley. The Big Jim, a medium-spiced pod, is named after her late husband Jim Lytle. Jim began developing the variety, and June and her son finished it. The hottest chile is the Sandia, which is long and slim. A milder chile is the New Mexico No. 6. The Joe Parker turned out hotter than its breeders wanted, but it makes a great chile powder. All of these are considered New Mexican varieties, and all are the long green pod type. Breeders at NMSU have been working on chiles since the late 1800s.

It’s the plant’s genetics that mostly account for the spice factor, but the environment can also have an effect. Fruits ripening at higher temperatures tend to have more capsaicinoids, a group of alkaloids that make chile hot. Most of the New Mexico varieties are medium to mild. For example, the Orange Habañero pepper is about 40 times hotter than the New Mexico Sandia.

But chiles don’t just get your endorphins (and other things) moving, they’re good for you, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend chile as a high source of Vitamin C. Plus, a hefty chile slathering adds flavor without loading up on fat.

Happy gnawing on our state vegetable … uh, fruit … this fall. Alexandria Berridge, this year’s Hatch Green Chile Queen, put it this way: “Have you tasted that Texas stuff? Yuck!”

Bright red ristras are all the advertising these sellers need.

Katy June-Friesen

What's a little mud? Someone still has to roast all those peppers.

Katy June-Friesen

People drive cross-country for this stuff.

Katy June-Friesen

Green gold

Katy June-Friesen

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