Flood Threatens N.M. Town's Legendary Chili Pepper Crop

One look at her modest 2-acre field and chili farmer Elizabeth Soto knew her crop outlook wasn't good.

"It's gone," Soto said Wednesday. "Completely and totally."

"Muy malo," said her father, Refugio Zaragoza, shaking his head.

That's not all. Soto's modular home floated slightly off its blocks after heavy rains forced a breach in a diversion ditch north of Hatch on Tuesday, causing flooding in the village that is famous for its spicy hot chili peppers.

The home probably can be repaired, thanks to the flood insurance Soto and her husband purchased two months ago at the insistence of her mortgage company. But the chili crop is another matter.

Hatch is one of the nation's leading chili producers and proclaims itself the Chili Capital of the World. An annual chili festival over Labor Day draws tens of thousands of tourists.

And what's the official state vegetable in New Mexico? Chili, of course.

In 2004, New Mexico farmers produced 106,850 tons of chili worth more than $50 million. Agriculture officials say the chili industry in New Mexico contributes more than $400 million annually to the state's economy.

So when Soto's field was submerged under 8 feet of water, it was tough for her to accept. Looking out from her home as the floods hit, she recalled the work that went into the crop and realized it had been futile.

Then she started crying.

"We are very, very, very sentimental about our chili," Soto said. "This is a huge part of our family life, our culture. It means more than just money. My mom, my dad, my husband and me have been working so hard."

The terrain of the Hatch Valley certainly contributed to flooding at Soto's land. Her farm sits at one of the lowest areas, where the crops are bordered by an pair of 8-foot levees that acted like a dam when water began accumulating.

Elephant Butte Irrigation District workers Demetrio Alanis, Francisco Gonzalez and Dan Bouvet stayed up overnight to drain the field. Their pumps moaned and chugged hour after hour, spitting a stream of water into an irrigation channel.

When the water receded, it became apparent to the men that the chilies were wiped out.

"It will probably be dead in a week," Bouvet said.

Soto's crop is ruined because moisture isn't good for the long green chilies. In fact, when New Mexico experiences a wet winter, chili farmers worry about the notorious curly-top virus that can devastate the crop before it even begins to grow.

Summer rains promote the growth of three crop diseases: phytophthora root rot — or chili wilt — powdery mildew and bacterial spot.

Not to mention, soggy fields make harvesting nearly impossible.

Making matters worse for Soto and her family, this year's batch was being hailed across New Mexico as a quality crop.

"It was beautiful chili," Zaragoza said in Spanish. "We were so proud of it. It had a lot of fruit."

Despite the devastation in Hatch, there's good news for chili lovers.

While Soto's small farm was overwhelmed, the storm that led to the flooding didn't make a big difference for the larger farms north of town. And, of course, there are many other chili farms across New Mexico.

Gene Baca, president of the New Mexico Chile Association and vice president of Bueno Foods, said most of the state's crop is raised in the Deming area and Hatch "is a fairly small part of where chili is grown in New Mexico."

"They have the name that most people associate with chili in the state, but there's actually not a lot of chili grown in that area," Baca said.

John White, Dona Ana County extension agent, said about 2,000 to 3,000 acres of chili are planted in the Hatch area — about half of the 5,500 acres of chili planted in Dona Ana county.

White said all farmers can do now — and in the future— is hope for the best.

"The weather prediction is for more and more rain," he said. "Hatch has a notoriety for chili and all this rain could drive the price up if (their chili) becomes this object that's hard to get ahold of."