Ag feature: Chile niche crop in area

Roosevelt County farmer Rick Ledbetter walks through his chile crop on Thursday.

By Argen Duncan: Freedom New Mexico

Chile is a hot commodity this time of year, but little grows in Roosevelt and Curry counties.

Tim Russell, manager of Russell’s Supersave grocery in Portales, said his fresh green chile sales run from late August to the beginning of October, depending on how the crop comes out in the southern part of the state. Supersave chile comes from Hatch.

“It’s a big thing around this time of the year,” said Russell, who estimated annual sales of two or three truckloads of chile. The chiles are about half roasted and half raw, based on customer requests.

In the offseason, Supersave offers frozen green chile.

Roosevelt County chile farmer Rick Ledbetter said this year’s crop looks good.

“It’s probably not the best crop we’ve had, but it looks good and everything’s coming along well,” he said.

Some of the crop had hail damage, Ledbetter continued, but there weren’t too many problems.

Ledbetter said little chile grows in the area.

He and one other farmer raised about 325 acres of commercial chile, primarily red chile for dye, in Roosevelt County. Ledbetter knows of no commercial chile farmers in Curry County.

However, others grow the crop on a small scale.

Margie Plummer, Portales Farmers Market manager and vendor, raises a few rows of chile for eating in her garden. She said her family has probably planted the crop for more than 30 years.

They eat and sell green chile, and later let the fruit ripen to red to be used as decorations.

“It’s not hard to grow,” Plummer said.

She starts seeds in the greenhouse in January or February, puts the plants in the field in early May and begins harvest in early August.

Ledbetter plants chile in March and finishes the harvest around Christmas.

Most of the area’s commercial chile is red paprika for dye in such products as makeup and food coloring, Ledbetter said. Chiles raised in this manner have no heat.

Of Ledbetter’s 275 acres of chile, 15 produce four green chile varieties of varying heat for Portales and Clovis farmers market customers and El Rancho Restaurant in Portales.

“We like to be able to sell them chile no matter whether they like it hot or mild,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter and his partner, Manuel Ornelas, have sold green and red chile for eating together for seven years, and Ledbetter has grown red chile for dye for eight years.

“Chile’s a real high-management crop,” Ledbetter said. “It’s a high-input crop — it takes a lot to grow it. But it’s worked well for me. It’s also a high-risk crop. Lots of things can happen.”

As a specialty crop, he said, it has potential to bring a better income than common crops.

Fast facts

• The chile industry in New Mexico is ranked first in the nation.

• In 2008, 11,100 acres of chile were harvested, compared to 34,500 acres in 1992.

• Oleoresin chile, red chile produced for dye, accounts for 30 percent of New Mexico chile acreage.

• Imports account for about 82 percent of the chile consumed in the United States.

Source: New Mexico Chile Association