Red or green — or brown?
Don’t worry: the answer isn’t brown.
Despite coping with the drought, erratic irrigation schedules and competing demands for river water, Socorro County chile farmers have the correct answer to our state’s official question: Christmas.
On a warm, windy morning this week 10 miles north of Socorro, Lemitar-based Cinco Estrella Chile Farm owner Glen Duggins proudly showed off neat rows of bell peppers, sweet corn, cabbage, green beans, okra, black-eyed peas and, of course, chile.
The chile plants are thriving — putting on two or even three baby pods per plant — even though 2014 marks the fourth consecutive year of drought.
“This year, the crop looks good, ” he said. “Chile likes it dry and hot. It doesn’t like a lot of rain. You can’t grow chile in high humidity or a rainy place – it gets diseased.” The irrigated desert valleys of New Mexico and Arizona provide just the right conditions for New Mexico’s favorite vegetable, he said. He wishes for lots of water flowing in the river — especially arroyo runoff — but none falling on his fields.
Barring a disaster – such as hail, Duggins predicts he will harvest between 50 and 60 thousand bushels of green and red chile, enough to fill about 35,000 gunny sacks. His farm supplies four Fruit Basket markets as well as six Sprouts Supermarkets in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The rest go to buyers coming from as far away as Flagstaff, as well as up and down the valley.
Irrigating chile plants during the flowering and fruit setting period happening this week is critical to production, so when Duggins couldn’t get scarce river water, he tapped into ground water, pulled up by massive pumps, despite the cost to his bottom line and the soil.
“The plants will stress you if don’t get them water,” he said. “It’s critical at this stage; you can lose the buds. We have to supplement. Without a well, you can’t farm chile.”
The pumps cost about $200 per day each to operate.
“Doing that day after day, you’ll soon eat your profits,” he said. “It’s for emergencies, a quick fix.”
He said he spent between $100,000 to $200,000 to install each well, including drilling and the pump motor.
The local aquifer’s briny water can spoil the soil, another reason not to run the pumps too often.
“You can’t run a well all the time,” he said. “It’s too salty. It would require you to use expensive chemicals to reduce the salt. We have to have that river.”
But he said he thinks the most important reason to use river water has to do with taste.
His farm’s Lemitar location may provide his chile with terroir, a French term meaning a taste associated with a particular place, thanks to a felicitous combination of altitude and mineral-rich silts carried by storm run off into the river from normally dry arroyos and captured for Socorro’s irrigation system at the San Acacia Diversion Dam. The arroyos’ waters color the local ditch water – different shades of red from the Salado, Abo, and Jemez; yellow from the Puerco. By the time the water reaches the farms in Hatch, though, the heavy silt has settled to the bottom of Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs, and the water runs clear.
“The different color waters are infused with nutrients,” he said. “I’ve never have a problem competing with Hatch chile as far as taste and quality. I’ve never been beaten by them. I think our chile is better-tasting chile.”
San Antonio chile farmer Chris Sichler thinks Socorro farmers suffered more during the drought of the 1950s than their upstream cousins, but their hardship has made it possible for him and other area farmers to weather the current drought.
It has to do with wells: in the 1950s, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s water delivery system wasn’t very effective, he said, and often the river ran dry before reaching Socorro. So farmers here drilled supplemental wells to save their crops.
Fast forward to 2014 – the Office of the State Engineer has issued a moratorium on new irrigation wells. But that’s not a problem here, thanks to all the old wells dotting the valley.
Sichler said his grandfather was careful only to buy land with an existing well. Now Sichler’s technologically-advanced Snake Ranch depends on those wells to fill its extensive drip system consistently, wringing more production out of every drop of water than his grandpa would have thought possible.
“Drill a well, or not grow chile,” Sichler said. He criticizes farmers spending $70,000 on a new tractor, but not to drill or refurbish a well.
Thanks to some quick learning on his part over the past seven years, his farm’s drip system has proven itself. Despite irrigation shortages, Sichler is guardedly optimistic about this year’s chile crop.
“It looks good so far,” he said. “I don’t speculate, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
For him, too much water is far worse than a drought.
“I’d much rather be in a drought any day than a flood,” he said. “One big rain can wreck everything. You have no control.”
Drip, on the other hand, allows a savvy farmer almost total control.
“Drip is a way to micromanage a crop, but it’s a lot of work to micromanage,” he said. “With chile (on drip), you can’t water it and go away for a week.
Sichler pumps both well and ditch water into large settling ponds he constructed to let sand, silt and debris fall away. Then he pumps 800 gallons of the settled water per minute through four 4-foot diameter filters before sending it through underground pipes to 170 acres of chile, corn and alfalfa where perforated black plastic tubes set 7 inches below the surface deliver the water to the plants’ roots.
When he first began to use the drip system, he pumped the well water directly into the filters, but iron in that water interacting with air produced iron oxide – rust – which quickly plugged up the tubing. Thinking fast, Sichler decided to pump the well water also into the ponds to allow the rust to form there and settle out.
Drip demands different farming techniques and equipment. The Sichlers invested about $100,000 in GPS technology to allow his tractor drivers to guide cultivator blades around the delicate drip tubes. He also designed a special tractor implement that slices large dirt clods as it cultivates the ground to prevent the tubing from being pulled out from the side – at a cost of another $10,000.
“It’s not something for an old dog that can’t learn to learn a new trick,” he said.
Even though he isn’t using less water than he did before converting to drip, Sichler said his production has increased, typical of farmers in other parts of the state.
“Farmers in Deming over the last 20 years have had a substantial increase in yield with the same or less water use,” said New Mexico’s state agronomist Rudy Garcia. But Garcia cautioned that not all farms are suited to drip.
“Some places, water quality or soil types would preclude a drip system,” he said.
Another Lemitar-based chile farmer, Mario Rosales, has installed cement ditches to conserve water, laser-leveled fields and leases land with wells when he can, but he and his family have opted not to worry about what they can’t control, namely, the quality and quantity of irrigation.
“We’ve learned not to lose so much sleep over it,” he said, adding his religious faith has helped him control stress.
Thanks to a competent ditch rider and careful farming, Rosales has nursed 150 acres of alfalfa, 50 acres of chile and seven acres of vegetables and melons with only two irrigations this season so far. He expects to harvest his chile in mid- to late-August, good news for chile and melon lovers.
Rosales floods his row crops slowly and then carefully tills so soil moisture is maintained.
“We don’t water it fast,” he said. “We soak it. Water it and then cultivate to keep the ground sealed.”
He spends the money level his fields with lasers so the water spreads evenly, even if it means tapping into precious capital.
“It costs $150 per hour to laser level a field,” he said. One six-acre field took around 30 hours to level, but now it irrigates in half the time it did before.
The Rosales family sells chile both at their Escondida stand and at two locations in Albuquerque.
Alberto Bustamante, 86, of Polvadera estimates he’s been farming chile for 81 years, ever since his farmer father started taking him along to hoe weeds when he was a 5-year-old.
“I learned everything from him,” Bustamante said.
He’s been farming in the valley since 1953, and so far this drought has been the worst he’s ever experienced, yet he was able to harvest a respectable chile crop on his 2 1/2-acre field. He expects the same to happen this year.
“Up to now, we haven’t had a problem,” he said.
He said his location at the top of the valley where the water draining from the northern irrigation divisions is diverted is the best place to have a farm.
“We’re the first ones here in San Acacia,” he said. “We’re going to have Unit 7 (drain) water. It’s alkali, but it’s water. Last year was the driest year of my life, but I didn’t suffer. We had pretty good chile.”
He admitted to taking water out of turn in the past, but said he doesn’t do that anymore.
“I didn’t steal it,” he said. “I got it from the ditch rider.”
The retired Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District water master said chile doesn’t have to be watered frequently all season long.
“A lot of chile farmers water and water,” he said. “I let it go for awhile. If you’re careful and give it water when it needs it, it’ll be all right.”
He said letting the soil dry out between irrigations encourages roots to grow deep, which helps the plants withstand dry periods when he can’t get ditch water. But they can’t be stressed if they are flowering.
“If chile gets really dry when it’s in flower,” he said, “you have trouble.”
Bustamante sells his organic green chile to two Albuquerque restaurants, and his sun-dried red chile to a variety of customers.
“One place buys makes red chile flakes for pizza, a lady makes red chile-cranberry jelly, and another goat cheese with red chile,” he said.
Several sacks of last year’s dried red chile are still hanging from the rafters of his shed, in case you need a local chile fix before this year’s crop is ready.