The self-proclaimed "chile capital of the world," Hatch, New Mexico, has kicked off its sales season for fresh peppers. The southwestern valley - now synonymous with green chile peppers - has produced its own foody following, noted by season festivals scheduled across the United States.
The prestige of the Hatch name has not come without its complications, however. Grower Preston Mitchell of Berridge Farms caught up with www.freshfruitportal.com to discuss the challenge of meeting demand for a pepper that has an increasing identity crisis.
Mitchell explained that although consumption has grown, water shortages have pushed chile acreage down in the valley.
"The water situation has impacted us the same way it has impacted other farmers in the valley. It’s getting very expensive to grow cash crops like chiles or onions because you’re pumping 99% of your water," he said.
"We haven’t been getting the usual allotment for years and this year we’re down to three inches out of our annual three acre feet."
The lack of water resources has made a clear impact on the area's production. In Doña Ana County, where Hatch is located, chile acreage has been on a steady decline for years.
According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, planted chile acreage in Doña Ana has dropped from 3,900 acres in 2009 to 2,400 in 2012. Harvested area has also dropped from 3,700 acres to 2,200 acres.
This equates to a drop in production over the same period from 32,000 tons (MT) to just under 26,000MT.
Growth in consumer demand and retail availability of the Hatch name tells a different story than government statistics. As Mitchell explained, here lies the chile's conundrum. How have Hatch chiles become so readily available when Hatch's production has been shown to be on a steady downward trend?
"80% to 85% of the chile sold in the U.S. in not from New Mexico, let alone from Hatch. Probably only 2% to 3% is from here in Hatch, yet they estimate that 10% to 15% of chiles sold in grocery stores have the Hatch name on it," Mitchell said.
"There is no possible way we're producing enough chile to supply everything that is being sold as from here. A lot of it being sold out there in grocery stores with the Hatch name on it is not actually Hatch."
There has been speculation among Hatch valley producers that many of the "Hatch" chiles sold in major groceries stores are actually imported from Mexico, Peru or China where the peppers come with a much smaller price tag.
"There are farms in Mexico that people are importing from and putting the Hatch name on it. That dilutes the brand equity that has been built up over the last 100 years. That’s a problem we face and it keeps supply from falling in line with demand and the price equaling things out," Mitchell said.
"Even though we’re producing less and less, there’s more and more out there that’s being sold as being from here."
Beyond price dilution, Mitchell said fake Hatch products deal a secondary blow to the valley's agricultural heritage.
"You don’t get those connections with family farms here in the valley that people have come to know. Like our customers in Santa Fe, they know there are three different Hatch chile stands out there but they know that we’re the only ones actually growing chile in Hatch. They tell so many people about that and that helps us," he said.
"You don’t get that on markets where people have never had a connection with the local farm. They don’t know it’s fake and that the product they’re getting is not what it’s being sold as. That hurts us in the short term pricewise and long term by making people have the impression that Hatch is just a common chile."
Hatch's family farm image dates back to the Franzoy family - Austrian miners who settled the valley about 90 years ago. As the story goes, Joseph and Celestina had 10 children who went on to have about 10 children each of their own. Many of Hatch's current chile farmers are still Franzoys, either by name or by marriage.
"When the Franzoy family moved here, they got into vegetable production and chile was one of the things they really focused on," said Mitchell, who lays claim to the Franzoy family himself.
"They got involved with New Mexico State and developed several varieties of chiles, which were very successful. A lot of the land here was bought up by the Franzoy family.
"They populated the Hatch valley and made it become known for chile production. Hatch became known colloquially as the 'chile capital of the world.'"
The tight-knit Hatch community is highlighted further by how tiny the valley actually is.
"It's a very small region. It runs from the dam at Caballo Lake which is north of Hatch by about 30 miles, down to where the valley closes just south of Rincon. There’s no farmland between Rincon and Radium Springs north of Las Cruces. There’s about a 15-mile stretch that is a very tight valley around the river and there are no farms whatsoever," Mitchell said.
"The traditional Hatch Valley is very small. It’s about a mile wide."
In a certain sense, the valley's small size benefits farmers. Limited space means smaller farms that may be more capable of managing demand for special orders. Rather than focus on bulk markets, Mitchell said his company sees stability in small-scale sales.
"For us, we’ll probably always be able to meet our demand because we’ll just plant a little bit more acreage if we anticipate more demand. It’s been growing every year. We’re selling a lot more chilies through our website and we sell through a couple of retail outlets," he said.
"I expect that we’re going to have a really good year. I expect our website is going to continue to reach more costumers that don’t necessarily get Hatch chiles locally."