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Salty Soil Hurts New Mexico's Beloved Chile Pepper


Chile peppers growing in New Mexico
Mónica Ortiz Uribe

Drip irrigation is a method farmers use to push salts away from the root base of a crop. Here a thin white line of salt accumulating beneath newly sprouted chile.

We know that too much salt is bad for your diet. It's also bad for growing crops.

Salty soil is a common problem for farmers in the arid West — and it only gets worse during a drought when there's not enough water to flush the salts out. In New Mexico one crop that's suffering is the state's beloved chile pepper. 

Chile is not just a crop in New Mexico, it's seared into the state's identity. The official state question, "Red or green?" refers to the sauce you prefer on enchiladas.

Chile peppers first migrated north with Mexican settlers. Later they were introduced to Anglo farmers.

June Rutherford is a 91-year-old chile farmer. Her family is credited with popularizing a breed of chile that was developed at New Mexico State University. The long green pepper, known now as "Big Jim," was named after her husband.

Rutherford's family homesteaded along the banks of the Rio Grande in the early 1900s. Her dad, Joseph Franzoy, was an Austrian immigrant. Rutherford said the first time he tried chile he thought he was being poisoned.

"Oh, he was scared to death when he ate it," she said. "And they laughed at him, teased him, you know, you have to get used to eating chile. It’s hot.”

The extended family of Joseph and Celestina Franzoy in a picture kept by their daughter June. The family is credited with popularizing New Mexico's iconic long green chile pepper.

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But today, chile is facing hard times in New Mexico. Production is down 40 percent from record highs a decade ago. That’s despite better farming techniques that allow farmers to grow seven times more chile per acre than they did back in 1990.

Still, the number of acres they harvest is at a 40-year low. Disease and competition from Mexico are major factors. But so is drought. 

On a 1,000-acre farm south of Hatch, New Mexico's chile capital, a pipe spilled water into a concrete canal. Farmers here have resorted to pumping from underground aquifers to make up for a lack of water from the nearby Rio Grande. But their groundwater is more of a curse than a blessing.

"The aquifers tend to be salty," said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at NMSU.

Salt is part of a geologic legacy beneath the surface, leftover from ancient oceans that once covered the West. The shallow aquifer under New Mexico's chile fields concentrates the salt. Experts estimate its content has quadrupled in the last four years.

A pipe spills water pumped from an underground aquifer beneath a pecan orchard south of Hatch, New Mexico.

"So the longer growers have to pump water, the more detriment to the vegetables that they are trying to grow," Walker said.

Detriment in form of root damage, which will weaken crops and decrease yields. It's a vicious cycle that can be a death sentence to certain forms of agriculture.

Farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley have long battled salts. Salty runoff from farms in the Colorado River Basin was what prompted the federal government to build a desalination plant in Yuma, Arizona after years of complaints from Mexican farmers.

In southern New Mexico, the local irrigation district is doing its best to rescue its vegetable farmers.

Salt badly damages crops. In this field of onions the damaged crop (right) is significantly smaller and thinner than a healthier crop (left).

Earlier this month in the control room of a dam north of Arrey, New Mexico an engineer released river water from a huge reservoir behind him. That water, which is less saltier than groundwater, went directly to the farmers in the Hatch Valley. They got it two weeks before farmers further downstream where the salt problem isn’t as bad. It’s the first year the irrigation district has done a special release.

But for some chile farmers, like Joe Paul Lack, it's too late.

"This is the third year that I have not had one acre of chile," he said. "I've been farming since the '70s, so, yeah, that hurts."

Other farmers are finding their own ways of mitigating the salt problem.

Scott Adams, a major onion and chile producer, uses drip irrigation. This method helps push salt away from the root zone and increases his yield by 30 percent. But after harvest the salt stays in the soil.

"Well, there is really no overcoming," Adams said. "You just pray for river water."

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