The worst-ever Rio Grande drought is posing plenty of challenges this season for chile growers in New Mexico.
The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that one challenge is groundwater that’s applied to crops in the absence of river water is saltier. Such water tends to stunt plants and hurt the overall yield of crops.
“It’s affecting all crops. The cause and effect is throughout the valley,” said Bobby Kuykendall, who grows habanero and ancho chile in Dona Ana County between La Union and Berino. “We’re getting less disease problems with pump water vs. canal water, but the salinity still has an effect on chile.”
A solid summer monsoon – and its salt-less moisture – could help provide some relief.
“So, we are really hoping for a good rainfall to leach some of that salt from the soil,” said Stephanie Walker, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist.
This week, about 60 percent of New Mexico’s chile crop had been planted, just slightly behind a five-year average for progress at this point, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Overall acreage statewide has dropped sharply over the past two decades, following an all-time high of 34,500 acres in 1992, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers.
After a low point of 8,700 acres in 2010, statewide chile acreage bumped up to 9,500 and 9,600 acres the last two seasons, a somewhat positive sign, industry officials have said.
Farmers are likely to curtail or even eliminate their chile acreage, now that the region is entering its third drought year, said Jeff Anderson, a horticulture extension agent in Dona Ana County, which is among the top two producers of chile in New Mexico.
“I can’t see it going up or even being the same with everybody knowing the drought is going to be worse this year,” he said.
The drought means chile farmers pay more to grow the crop, as they pay irrigation district fees but don’t get water and the fuel costs to pump groundwater.
Added to that is stiff pepper-growing competition from other countries, such as Mexico, where labor costs are much lower than in the United States.
Kuykendall said he’s cut back significantly on the chile acreage he farms ever since 2005 because of labor costs involved with growing the crop. The drought, too, has played a role. Other farmers simply don’t grow chile anymore, he said.
“With the water shortage, a lot of these guys have abandoned chile,” he said. “A lot of it was that they were renting land from individuals, and they just didn’t grow the crop this year.”
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