Overcoming water challenges and improving quality

“We are filling a niche with high-grade chiles,” said Jimmy Lytle, a chile farmer in New Mexico, where family, chile variety improvements and water availability are intertwined in the success of chile production.

Chile ristras, in both edible and nonedible types, are popular Chile Express items.
Photos courtesy of Jimmy Lytle.

The 69-year old Lytle is partners with his mother, June Lytle, and son, Faron Lytle, at Solar Farm and Solar Dry Chile Products in Hatch, N.M. Whether it’s the sun, the soil or the family devotion to chile production, New Mexico chile is recognized for its unique flavor and color, and Hatch, N.M., is promoted as the chile capital of the world. In addition to growing some of the best-tasting chile produced, Hatch hosts a number of fall chile roasting events, with the annual Hatch Chile Festival the highlight of Labor Day weekend.

Family history in this fourth-generation chile operation is strong. The farm was started by Lytle’s grandfather, Joseph Franzoy. The NuMex Big Jim variety was developed on the family farm in cooperation with New Mexico State University (NMSU), and it was named for his father, the late Jim Lytle. Lytle’s wife, Jo Lytle, launched the retail store, Hatch Chile Express (www.hatch-chile.com), in 1988.

A seed dryer is used for drying certified seed.

Lytle currently grows primarily four varieties of green chiles that range in heat from mild to super hot. The high-grade chiles are harvested and sold fresh, frozen and dehydrated. Certified chile seed is produced, and ChileSeedUSA (www.chileseedusa.com) is a major business component. While a high degree of attention to business is required, Lytle’s real love is in the continuing improvement to existing chile varieties and the development of new varieties.

“We developed super, super hot Lumbre here on the farm, and we continue to make improvements to it. We’ve also made improvements to the NuMex Big Jim chile,” Lytle said. Big Jim Legacy is the improved Big Jim chile. Its medium flavor is popular for green chile dishes, and it is processed into a dry red powder. “We’re looking for bigger, smoother pods, better taste and higher yield potential, anything to improve the quality to help growers,” Lytle said.

Jo and Jimmy Lytle.

New Mexico produces high-quality chiles with consistent flavors ranging from mild to super hot, with chile heat measured in Scoville units. The uniquely consistent flavor available today is credited to a large degree to the efforts of Dr. Fabian Garcia, NMSU researcher. Garcia developed an early variety in which the heat was stabilized, laying the groundwork for future variety improvements.

Harvested chiles are left out in the sun to dry.

Continuing to fill the niche market is important to the Lytle operation, and to the New Mexico chile economy. Lytle is a member of the New Mexico Chile Association. The association and NMSU work jointly with individual growers in leading the way to compete in the global market through efficient production.

Efforts are under way at NMSU to develop improved varieties that offer greater marketability and can be produced with increasingly limited water and labor. Extensive research led by Dr. Paul Bosland focuses on developing varieties that exhibit both better taste and higher yield potential, while also working well for mechanical harvesting. Characteristics such as plant set of the pods, protruding stems for automatic destemming and lower water requirements are sought.

Harvested chiles dry in the sun, while other chiles continue growing in the adjacent field.

Growing and selling chiles

Due to limited water availability, Lytle’s current chile acreage is down to about 80 acres. Solar Farm grows the mild New Mexico 6 variety, followed in heat by medium Big Jim Legacy, and hot Sandia and Lumbre varieties. Lytle describes Lumbre as “super, super hot.” ChileSeedUSA sells certified chile seed commercially throughout Texas, Arizona and California.

Chiles turn red in the field.

Chiles are harvested and destemmed in the field by experienced field workers, with a crew of about 60 at harvest. While labor availability is an ongoing concern in agriculture, Lytle said, “We have high-quality people, and we train them as needed here at the farm.”

After harvesting, chiles head to the grading line, where workers hand-check the chiles to be sure they are up to acceptable high standards. Any stems that might have remained on the chile pods are removed. Chiles are roasted and sold as fresh green chiles, or dehydrated and processed into chile powder. Chile powder is sold wholesale to various restaurants and distributors.

Faron, 49, is farm manager, and June, 88, who grew up completely immersed in growing chiles at the family farm, continues to maintain a significant role in operations, primarily in the dehydrating segment.

Drip irrigation is used in this green chile field in New Mexico.

Hatch Chile Express sells fresh, frozen and chile powder processed on the farm. Associated products such as decorative chile ristras, both dry and edible, are also available, along with certified seed for growing chiles in home gardens. Lytle’s daughter, Rhonda Cabrales, and her husband, Frank Cabrales, work in the retail store.

Big Jim Legacy green chiles exhibit smooth, long pods.

Water is lifeblood for arid land farming

Arid land farming depends on water availability. Lytle uses drip irrigation, with water supplied by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the farm’s on-site wells. Before the water enters the drip irrigation system, it is filtered and nutrients are added.

Chile plants growing in a greenhouse.

Water is the crucial element for farming arid lands. While the Colorado River is a major supplier of agricultural and urban water needs in the Southwest, New Mexico farming is supported by Rio Grande River water and groundwater.

The farmer-owned Elephant Butte Irrigation District supplies irrigation water for about 90,000 acres, which includes a portion of Texas. It is the second oldest irrigation system in the U.S., developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, with the lake filled in 1915. The Bureau of Reclamation operated the irrigation system until it was purchased by the farmers who use the water.

Three diversion dams are located on the Rio Grande River. Irrigation water for Solar Farm is released as needed from the Elephant Butte Lake back into the Rio Grande and diverted to the Hatch canal system. The canal carries the water to the Solar Farm turnout, where it enters the farm and is carried to the drip irrigation system.

While irrigation district members are allotted 3 acre-feet of water annually per acre of land owned, that water amount has been drastically reduced due to the ongoing drought. “We’ve been in a major drought since 2003,” said Gary Esslinger, Elephant Butte Irrigation District manager. “This year the amount of water actually distributed to Lytle was 10 inches. This affects farmers, who must pump the additional water from their wells.” All water used is measured, with reporting required to the state engineer, who controls all groundwater in the state.

The Hatch Chile Express retail store sells fresh and dry chile products.

While the groundwater table has been reduced, it currently provides needed water. Ongoing concerns exist for the competing water needs of the growing city of Las Cruces and other entities within the state, in addition to agriculture. “We expect that agriculture will remain steady,” Esslinger said. “As the city grows and environmental uses increase, they [city and environmental entities] can purchase land and acquire water rights as landowners as determined by the state engineer.”

Most of the canals and laterals carrying water are earthen. “We are starting to pipe some of the water,” Esslinger noted. He added that while piping the water prevents loss of water while it is flowing through earthen canals and laterals, the piping process reduces the volume of water going back into the groundwater system.

Water remains a challenging component of farming on arid land, and will require concerted efforts from all competing interests as water needs continue to increase. These efforts are essential to assure adequate water for the historical and economically important chile production in New Mexico operations like Lytle’s.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.