State agriculture officials say New Mexico chile maintains one clear advantage.

Jaye Hawkins, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, says New Mexico chile has a reputation as the chile with the most unique flavor. She points to the popularity of the Hatch chile variety, the preferred chile by New Mexico green chile lovers.

“New Mexico consumers are savvy about chile quality and variety and there will always be a demand for Hatch chiles. Chile is still roasted in parking lots each fall across the state and restaurants are loyal to native varieties. This is working in our favor, but this alone can’t salvage an industry so threatened by foreign competition,” Hawkins says.

And the growing problem of drought and water shortage is a problem quickly rising to the top of growers’ challenges, she said.

“Chile grows well in arid climates, but water is still required.  Irrigating from ground wells increases production costs considerably, and New Mexico hasn’t escaped the drought,” Hawkins said.

Legal disputes between Texas and New Mexico and rising friction between Mexico and the U.S. over legal rights to water in the Rio Grande River Basin are evidence of the growing concern over water in the region. Last month Texas filed a federal lawsuit over water rights to the river as the threat of another year of drought across the Southwest looms over growers as they prepare for the new crop year.

Producers in New Mexico face another problem—young farmers are abandoning chile in favor of more profitable crops. While chile farming traditions run deep in New Mexico, making a profit is more important.

Eddy County Extension agent Woods Houghton says many younger chile and nut farmers in southern New Mexico are turning to more traditional crops like cotton because of drought conditions, foreign competition and labor issues. He says the threat of introduction of diseases and pests from Mexican red chile imports poses another problem.

In December, two shipments of Mexican red chile were stopped at border entry points in Texas and New Mexico because pests were discovered in the shipments. Digital images of the insects intercepted in New Mexico were sent to a USDA entomologist for identification. The pests were identified as Brochymena sp. Pentatomidae, commonly called a stink bug. Entomologists identified the insects discovered at the Presideo, Texas, point of entry as Chrysomelidea Epitrix sp., or flea beetles.

“These pests can ruin an entire crop if introduced into an area where there are few safeguards against it,” reported USDA officials.

In response to the discoveries, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents issued an Emergency Action Notification (EAN) and ordered the shipments returned to their point of origin in accordance with the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.