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New Mexico Chile Industry Detailed in New NMSU Study

LAS CRUCES - A much-anticipated review of New Mexico's chile pepper industry that could be used to better gauge labor issues and economic impact of the crop is now available to scientists and the public, a New Mexico State University researcher said today.

Rhonda Skaggs, an agricultural economist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, said at a meeting of the New Mexico Chile Task Force here on Wednesday that any dip in the industry is felt far beyond the field.

"Without the chile pepper industry, a number of agriculture-related jobs would be on the line," Skaggs said. In Doņa Ana County and neighboring Luna County alone, the number of jobs directly linked to vegetable production, including chile peppers, was 1,768, while the indirect total was 2,666.

The Chile Pepper Task Force, formed in 1998, identifies and implements ways to keep the state's chile production profitable. It includes processors, growers, harvester manufacturers, and NMSU scientists and Cooperative Extension Service specialists. The task force has three major working groups focusing on mechanical harvesting, drip irrigation and best management practices.

Hard data is a welcome sight for the chile industry. Lately, there's been widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of accurate information. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the crop value at about $50 million, industry groups estimate it at more than $200 million.

By some accounts, the problem is that there's no chile category in state or federal accounting to determine the impact on related jobs. NMSU economists found that they had to cobble together numbers from almost a dozen industry categories - vegetables, dehydrated food products, motor freight transport, wholesale trade and others - to tally the number of direct and indirect jobs.

The lack of data stems from business privacy concerns and the nature of the labor force, said Teri Hall, a graduate student in NMSU's of agricultural economics and agricultural business department who led the study's field work in New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Her findings were based on interviews with more than 25 chile processors, as well as government officials, farmers, labor advocates and livestock feed manufacturers.

Another problem is getting a handle on exactly what constitutes New Mexico's chile industry. In general, Hall said the chile industry is divided into four broad categories: cayenne, jalapeņo, red and green chile. After that, chile breaks down into a blizzard of sub-sectors based on processing techniques, including fresh, dried, dehydrated, flaked and powdered products. By-products include livestock feed.

Many of New Mexico's chile pepper problems lie in cost and availability of hand labor to harvest the crop. More than 40 percent of chile production cost is tied to hand-harvesting the crop, motivating producers to move to mechanical harvesters as quickly as they can, said
Richard Phillips, chile task force coordinator and project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

The shift stems from the constant pressure of international competition, especially from Mexico where harvest labor costs about $6 versus $65 a day in the United States, Hall said. Over the past decade chile imports from Mexico have risen from virtually nothing to a peak of more than 55,000 metric tons in 1999. Last year, more than 148,000 tons of chile were processed in New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Almost a quarter of that total came from Mexico.

Working in New Mexico's chile industry is a seasonal job at best. While a few people work year-round, the number of employees needed in production and processing increases from about 3,000 in July to 15,00 in August to almost 22,000 in September. After that the number drops off to a few hundred by January.

Finally, the study compiled information about farm laborers in Doņa Ana County, one of southern New Mexico's leading chile production areas. The typical farm laborer is Hispanic with a third-grade education, said Rose Garcia, executive director of Tierra Del Sol Housing Corp., a Las Cruces-based non-profit housing organization. About 60 percent are U.S. citizens. At the peak of vegetable harvesting, an estimated 10,000 farm laborers are working in Doņa Ana County. They have an average of 4.2 family members and a household income of $7,000 a year.

"This study has information that hasn't been available before," Hall said. "It'll be helpful in helping others understand the broad impact the chile industry has on the local economy."