Cracking Down On Illegal - Chile Peppers - In New Mexico

Dried red chile for sale at a shop in Hatch, New Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
April 28, 2011

HATCH, New Mexico - Chiles are the state treasure of New Mexico. Now their authenticity is protected by state law.

Governor Susana Martinez signed legislation in April that could send anyone caught lying about selling the real thing to jail.

That's welcome news for chile growers throughout the state. Especially in Hatch - the tiny town that hosts a yearly chile festival that can draw up to 30,000 people.

The Hatch Valley is where Shane Franzoy grows his beloved peppers. He is a proud fourth generation farmer here. On a recent afternoon he drove his truck over a bumpy soil road to inspect his babies.

And babies they are. You can barely see the tiny green stems peeking from out of the ground.

“If you look really close you will see little green lines,” Franzoy said.

Indeed, chile season is still a good three months away. But beware. Even in this early growing season, New Mexicans say if you drive around the state long enough you are very likely to come across people selling heaps of full grown “fresh New Mexico chile”. They call them imposters.

Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University, has certainly come across it.

“Oh all the time. You bet you'll see it,” she said. “I see it up in Albuquerque. I see it in Santa Fe. You see it in roadside stands.”

Walker said season is a good indication of whether or not fresh chile is actually grown in New Mexico.

“The Hatch harvest is probably not going to hit its peak or full swing til late July,” she said. “So if you see something being labeled as fresh Hatch chile in June or in May, it's not. It's not Hatch chile. It's coming from somewhere down south.”

Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Melva Aguirre (left) owns the Pepper Pot Restaurant in Hatch, New Mexico. Her sister Rosario Varela also works there. The governor signed a bill protecting New Mexico chiles at the popular restaurant.

While New Mexico chiles comes in many varieties and in all shades of red and green, the Hatch chile simply refers to the fact that the pepper was grown in the Hatch Valley. But the real problem is that there are many other chiles sold in the state that were not grown anywhere near New Mexico.

According to Walker, it all started when NAFTA was signed into law in 1994. The free trade agreement opened the market for Mexican chile growers to import and sell their chile in New Mexico. Now countries as far away as Peru and China do the same. A variety of New Mexico chile is also grown in California.

The fact that all this outside chile is sometimes marketed as native chile makes New Mexicans searing mad. The new law Governor Susana Martinez signed makes that illegal.

State Representative Andy Nuñez of Hatch sponsored the legislation.

“We want to protect our chile growers here,” Nuñez said.

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture will be responsible for policing the new law by auditing and inspecting businesses that sell chile.

“They can fine them up to $300 and 90 days in jail or both,” Nuñez said. “And if they persist, then there's a provision in the bill that will allow for a court injunction.”

But enforcing the law is a hefty challenge. You can't distinguish true New Mexico chile just by looking at it. Only true connoisseurs are able to taste the difference. And there are literally thousands of sellers - anything from grocery stores to big name companies to little roadside stands.

New Mexicans remain passionate about their product, despite the fact that foreign competition has led to a steady drop in production and sales here over the last decade. Last year, the farm profit for chile growers was $41.6 million, down from $67 million in 1992. That's mostly because foreign chile is cheaper than locally grown chile.

At the Pepper Pot Restaurant in Hatch, owner Melva Aguirre serves up chile on everything from hamburgers to scrambled eggs. She immigrated from Mexico and picked the famous crop. When she runs out of New Mexico chile, she uses chile from Mexico. It's okay to use outside chile, she said, as long as you are honest about it.

But the taste can't compare.

“When it's chile season, there's nobody who can beat us,” she said.