As the Competition Heats Up, So Does a Fight Over Homegrown Peppers

New York Times
Published: February 22, 2013
Correction Appended

SANTA FE, N.M. – Chile peppers are to New Mexico what oranges are to Florida, apples are to Washington and peanuts are to Virginia: a defining source of chest-thumping pride. It is also the state’s official vegetable and the reason for such thing as the state’s official question – “Red or green?”

Chile peppers are a crop under assault, though – from foreign competitors like Mexico, where harvesting could cost less than one-third of what it costs in New Mexico. Meanwhile, prolific growers in California surpassed the state years ago in the quantity of chile peppers harvested from its fields to become the nation’s No. 1 producer, according to statistics from the federal Agriculture Department.

Farmers have also been facing a vexing challenge on the ground: keeping chile grown outside New Mexico from being sold as homegrown, a deceptive practice that is common and hard to detect.

Charlie Marquez, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Chile Association, described the situation as “disturbing.” State Representative Rodolpho S. Martinez, a Democrat whose district encompasses the heart of chile country, stared ahead, rubbed his knuckles and called it an “outrage.”

Last month, Mr. Martinez introduced a bill to add some teeth to a 2011 law that everyone had hoped would safeguard the status of New Mexico’s chiles, but has fallen short. The new bill aims to force out-of-state chile peppers, in their natural and processed forms, to display on their package an unusual disclaimer: “not grown in New Mexico.”

“It’s to guard against impostors, to keep them honest,” Representative Martinez said on a recent morning.

Protecting New Mexican chile peppers has been a tough battle, in part because not every legislator buys into the idea that the right way to do it is to create more rules. The state, hobbled by a sluggish economic recovery, has also found it difficult to find money to finance new programs.

Representative Martinez’s bill passed unanimously in the House Agriculture and Water Resources Committee last month. Then, on Wednesday, it was shelved by an 8-to-7 vote in the House Judiciary Committee after a spirited debate over whether it might be too burdensome for small growers. On Thursday, though, there was already talk that the bill could be resurrected after the committee’s chairwoman, Representative Gail Chasey, a Democrat, said, “It is not necessarily dead.” An identical bill has already been introduced in the Senate. Washington State trademarked its apples in 1961 and Virginia trademarked its peanuts in 2006. In the late 1980s, under stiff competition from states like Texas and California, Georgia wrote into law exactly what type of seeds and soil would yield its sweet Vidalia onions. A year later, the federal government endorsed the same parameters and the brand was certified in 1990.

Wendy Brannen, executive director of the Vidalia Onion Committee, which handles marketing and research on behalf of growers and packers of Vidalia onions, said that more than protecting the crop, “the State of Georgia worked hard to build the Vidalia brand.”

New Mexico has opted for a modest and incremental approach. Its 2011 law gave inspectors from the state’s Agriculture Department the ability to seek court injunctions against companies that falsely advertise their chile peppers as being from New Mexico by allowing them to inspect stores and audit companies’ sales books. Last July, the department began requiring a certificate of authenticity to accompany chile peppers from the field to the point of sale or processing plant. Katie Goetz, the department’s spokeswoman, said the most obvious violations found so far have been in red chile pods sold in plastic bags that feature the words “New Mexico chile,” as well as “Hecho en Mexico” or “Made in Mexico.”

Under the same bill, Mr. Martinez proposed going after out-of-state chile peppers sold under brands bearing names of cities, counties and other New Mexico localities known for their chile production, like “Hatch chile,” named after the southern village that hosts a huge chile festival every year. Its main targets, however, are big chain stores, which he said may not be as diligent as roadside vegetable stands about checking the origin of the products they offer.

“Maintaining our brand is important,” Representative Martinez said, even if for a declining industry. In 2011, chile peppers were harvested along 9,500 acres of land. Nearly a decade earlier in 1992, harvested fields covered more than 34,000 acres, according to the New Mexico Chile Association.

Mr. Marquez said a chile pepper harvester makes about $90 a day in New Mexico and about $20 in Mexico, which results in a big discrepancy in their sale prices. Still, he went on, “We’re so proud of it, we’re willing to pay a premium for New Mexico chile.”

The question, however, is whether the average customer can taste the difference in chile peppers that come from this place or that.

Yes, Mr. Marquez said, “if you’re comparing chile from New Mexico and chile from Colorado.” But, he conceded, “30 miles south of the border, in Mexico, they’re growing chile that is very similar to ours and the vast majority of people probably couldn’t tell them apart.”

Correction: February 25, 2013, Monday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An article on Friday about a fight in New Mexico over chile peppers that are grown outside the state yet are being sold as “homegrown” referred incorrectly to the existence of an official state question. The state does indeed have such a question, having adopted it in 1996. (The reporter suggested that if the state were to adopt an official question, it no doubt would be: “Red or green?,” as to which pepper is preferred. That is, in fact, the official question – about the state’s official vegetable.)

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