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Anson Stevens-Bollen

The Next Great Extinction?

Climate change threatens to make growing chiles in New Mexico tougher than ever

September 28, 2016, 12:00 am

Until an August storm hammered his fields with nickel-sized hail for half an hour, Matt Romero’s chile crop looked to be heading for its biggest season yet. While pinned in his truck, watching, he shot a video of the pummeling his cucumbers, cabbages and chiles received. Between the vegetable rows, inches of muddy water roil in the hail. His swearing and lamenting the devastation can just barely be heard over the drumming on the truck rooftop.

“All the extra profits we would have looked at for this year were just gone in one half-hour event,” Romero tells SFR later. “I’ve never had one that severe—ever.”

The total hit comes out to $60,000 to $80,000, or roughly 30 percent of his anticipated profits this year from his 11 acres, spread over two plots in Alcalde and Dixon.

“It doesn’t let up at all,” he says, revisiting that footage. “Normally, it’s ding, ding, ding, and you’re done. This is 10 rounds and you’re out. Looks like a winter storm, doesn’t it? That’s the bizarre part of how thick it got.”

He’ll be fine, he insists over coffee on a quiet Tuesday morning at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, between turns at the chile roaster. There, he dons a pink apron and sunglasses and jokes that he’s the most interesting roaster in town with tourists who break out their phones and iPads to shoot photos and videos of him.

“It would be hard to survive that hit if I was a much smaller farmer, or hadn’t had the success along the way,” he says. “But we’ll make it. We’ll make it another year.”

The weather hasn’t been easy on anyone this year. In July, farmers ran short on water and temperatures ran high, and worries for this year’s crop ran right alongside. Then all the rain they normally see spread over the month of July seemed to fall in a single day in August. This comes after a February so warm that carrots started to grow.

Chiles are a goldilocks crop—they want to be not too hot, not too cold, not too wet and not too dry. The plant doesn’t set fruit in temperatures warmer than 95 degrees or cooler than 55 degrees. A light frost can be fatal.

New Mexico grows a quarter of the United States’ chile supply, and continues to be the second largest producer in the country, but the crop has taken hits in the previous decades. In 1992, 34,500 acres were harvested. By 2012, that number had plummeted to 9,600, and last year was all the way down to 7,700 acres, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. At this point, onions account for a greater share of state cash flow from crops, at 8 percent, and pecans wallop both categories, bringing in 19.9 percent. Chile peppers limp along at 5.5 percent, down from $65 million in sales to $38.6 million just between 2012 and 2014.

By far, the leading force in those losses has been competition from other countries. As an often hand-picked crop, it’s cheaper to grow and pay laborers to harvest chile in Mexico, Asia and India, which have emerged as leading producers globally. Demand for chile has more than doubled, while New Mexico’s supply of it (and share of the profits) has dropped. But while labor poses its own set of problems—from costs to farmers to challenges for the workers themselves, who face long hours of difficult work—the weather also takes some credit for making life tough for chile farmers, and it’s getting tougher.

In the heat of July, the Trujillos were most worried about water. After an almost nonexistent spring that rolled right into summer, plants were two weeks late (though last year’s wet summer gave rise to more pests and rodents to go after chiles). Timing is a delicate art for their crops, which are watered by one of four ditches filled by the Santa Cruz dam. Early season overflows readily supply their fields, but those taper off through the summer months.

“You can’t have water when you want to have water; you have to water when it’s available,” says Noel Trujillo of Vigil’s Chimayó Produce. He can’t even grow on the 7 acres at his house because the water there isn’t dependable.

"Mother Nature is just making it a little more
difficult for our growers."
                       -Paul Bosland

“We’ve been on the acequia system for God knows how many years, and it works … but it does reach a critical point,” Trujillo says. “You just kind of put the water for the stuff you want to save. Of course you notice the snowpacks are less than they used to be.”

That’s where his wife, Gloria Trujillo, picks up the conversation: “This summer has been super hot, and you can see that it’s taken its toll on the plants.”

Once water isn’t coming over the spillway, they try to conserve to last the whole season, or at least until the monsoon, she said in a late-July conversation: “But we should have seen that two weeks ago.”

There have been worse years, says Jesús Guzmán of Jesús Guzmán Produce, recalling a period in the mid-1990s so dry they couldn’t farm his acres near Medanales at all. The situation didn’t improve until around 2006.

“Some years are a lot better than others, but we never got back to the early ’90s, late ’80s, when we had more water than we could use,” he says. “It never came back. This year has been one of those years it seems like we’re just going to scrape by. … Water has been getting scarce, more and more. We’re getting to a point that we’re not going to make it, and rain remains to be seen.”

The trouble with a changing climate is that it’s not just a slow cranking up of the thermostat, says New Mexico State University horticulture professor Paul Bosland—also known as the “Chileman,” who signs his emails “hottest regards.”

“One thing people have to understand with climate change is, it’s not just this gentle warming, like it’s going to be 1 degree warmer or 2 degrees warmer. We’re seeing these fluctuations where it seems to be more dramatic, and things happening like, much colder than normal, much hotter than normal,” he says. “Climate change, it’s real. Nobody should ever doubt it. But we know it’s not climate warming, per se. It is getting warmer, but it’s not going to be just a gentle warming. We just see this real dramatic shift, more dramatic weather events.”

New Mexico State University horticulture professor Paul Bosland wants to see New Mexico establish a reputation for the highest quailty chile.

That’s problematic for an already finicky plant that produces less when it’s too hot or too cold. In 2015, NMSU’s teaching garden saw 70 days of temperatures above 90 degrees.

“It was the lowest chile year we saw on our research plots, ever,” Bosland says.

This year, two plots were hit with hail that set back their production.

“Mother Nature is just making it a little more difficult for our growers,” Bosland says.

The teaching garden at NMSU in Southern New Mexico is planted with more than 150 types of chiles, sourced from all over South America, including 10 wild types and wild varieties from domesticated species. Many of these the American public has never tasted, but they provide a veritable toy box for chile breeders, full of options for them to select for plants that can set fruit at higher temperatures.

Chiles can self-pollinate, producing seeds that grow into plants very similar to their parents. Introducing new genetic material to get something more like daughters and sons than twins takes an external hand to mix pollen from two plants selected as good parents. Their progeny are then planted in test plots, and from there, breeders choose plants that seem to have inherited the best of their parents—like disease resistance and heat tolerance.

“We’re going to have to keep selecting for plants that can set at that hotter weather, and that’s going to be possible because the original chiles, the ones before we began breeding here in New Mexico, really grew in a much more temperate area. They liked around 68, 72 degrees Fahrenheit,” Bosland says. “We selected and selected until we had one that would grow here in New Mexico.”

But 10 years will pass between creating new varieties and seeing farmers stock those varieties in their fruit stands. Can that process keep pace with the changing climate?

“We don’t know,” Bosland says. “We’re watching it. We are cognizant of this fact, so we’re looking now to see how do our chiles do.”

Chiles aren’t alone in this problem. Nature Climate Change recently published research into Africa’s maize crops that tracked a 30-year process to breed, deliver and adopt new varieties of maize adapted to hotter conditions that shorten crop duration and decrease yield. At that speed, new varieties are outpaced by changes in the climate and therefore rendered useless. The researchers suggested developing new crops in greenhouses already heated to the temperatures projected for the decades ahead.

Terry Berke, who has been the hot pepper breeder with Monsanto Company for 16 years, has a different perspective.

“The climate has always been changing,” he says. Their program runs entirely out of fields, with a base in Woodland, California—which saw an exceptionally hot summer, with many days over 100 degrees—and breeding nurseries in Florida, Mexico and Guatemala. “Breeders see that as job security. We just keep doing our breeding and selecting for better adaptation, better plant, better yield, better disease package. I don’t worry about it so much. I think breeding is going to be able to solve whatever issues we have, in conjunction with technology like drip irrigation. At least for the considerable future, I think we’ll be fine.”

There’s only so much science can do to intervene on the chile’s behalf in the face of a changing climate, and what they do, they have to do in largely old-school ways. No one has yet cracked the chile genome.

“I’m 100 percent sure you’re not getting a GMO chile, because it can’t be done,” Bosland says.

One NMSU researcher focuses specifically on what it is that renders the chile genome recalcitrant to gene editing; it’s the one plant in its family to hold that distinction.

A pepper crop typically takes five months from seed to seed, and while there are some options for speeding that up, they’re laborious and not very cost effective, says Berke, so they basically just have to wait out the natural cycle.

“Pepper breeding is a long-term process,” he says.

At Monsanto, just building new “parent” peppers—two varieties to cross-pollinate to produce a new hybrid that has won the genetic lottery by taking desired traits from both of its parents—can take five years. Another five will pass with internal testing, selecting the best of the best offspring, ramping up seed production and launching commercially.

You can’t tell, but this green chile is growing in Mexico, an increasing agricultural competitor.
Mark Woodward

“We can manipulate earliness, plant height, yield, disease resistance, even things like shelf life without affecting flavors, so that’s essentially what we try to do,” Berke says. “We always run commercial varieties as our checks, and we send a lot of stuff to our vegetable quality lab, where we measure pungency, sugars, dry matter and other quality traits and, basically, we try to match more or less the commercial checks.”

He describes a program driven by popular opinion—not his thoughts on what tastes good, but the purchase power of, say, the 100 million Mexicans who eat peppers. They try to keep the flavor steady while manipulating other characteristics of the plant that could affect its resiliency and production. And always, always with an eye on the specific length-to-width ratio demanded, which is 2.5 to 1 for jalapeños, 1:1 to habaneros and 4:1 for serranos. There’s a little variance in that, but stray too far, he says, and consumers “really start to squawk at you.”

While chiles haven’t opened up to genetic modification, researchers have identified molecular markers, like reading a DNA fingerprint. Traditional pathology screenings take six weeks to three months and have to run for one disease at a time. The latest testing for molecular markers for disease resistance, which involves taking and testing a hole-punch sample of a leaf, can be completed much earlier in the plant’s life and can screen for a dozen different resistances. It’s much faster.

Faced with diseases that can wipe out a chile harvest, Berke says, breeding for disease resistance has been the focus at Monsanto.

“We’ve identified a disease resistance package of four different traits that we’re focused on,” he says, listing four fungi and bacteria that can attack peppers from their roots to their leaves. “We think with those four disease resistances we should be able to grow a hybrid anywhere in the US or Mexico.”

Increased natural resistance to those pests could also reduce the use of pesticides. To be clear, Monsanto does no genetic modification work on chiles—not for “Roundup Ready” crops and not for built-in pesticide-resistance often now deployed in corn and soybeans. A NMSU faculty member has received funding from the New Mexico Chile Growers Association to develop a chile resistant to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, but results of that research have not yet been published.

The drip irrigation revolution that started around 2005 has dramatically reduced the amount of water required to grow crops, Berke says, alleviating some of pressure for research in that area.

“Nobody is really asking me about drought resistance at this particular time,” Berke says. “Peppers are a fairly high-value crop. They can afford to pay for water to irrigate them, much more so than wheat or cotton or row crops with fairly high water consumption but low value, so they’re happy to pay for whatever water they need for peppers.”

Whatever the next change that comes, Berke sees it likely to arrive on the wings of gene-editing technology. This more precise method for changing specific base pairs to create alleles that exist already in nature could be applied to existing hybrid parents, instantly giving them a new resistance without having to breed new parents.

“This would be a lot faster and more convenient, so that’s going to be the next big thing coming down the pike in breeding,” Berke says. “We think this is going to be more widely accepted than, say, the GMOs that have caused such a controversy.”

Drones have also increasingly found a place in farm country, checking conditions on massive fields of commodity crops. Whether they’ll be able to work for vegetable crops remains to be seen. Camera and battery technology will need to improve, but could potentially allow for drones to be used to monitor for drought stress and nitrogen deficiency, alerting farmers where to target fertilizer and water.

“There’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of interest, for sure,” Berke says. “I think it’ll be a very useful tool in the future.”

Another solution at play is the oldest in the book—the question of allowing crops to naturally evolve within their landscape. After all, selective breeding by farmers over eons has played a large role in how we’ve gotten the wide range of flavors, shapes, colors and spice levels already available.

“Maybe now is when allowing plants to adapt naturally becomes more important than creating clones of an existing plant,” says Romero, back in Santa Fe. “So maybe we need to go back to the open-pollinated-type plants that are able to adapt to their region, and that’s part of what the local chile has become.”

Much of his seed he purchases, then plants seedlings in a greenhouse in Dixon and later moves them to his fields. But he’s also bred his own new variety, the Alcalde Improved, which he says is their best-tasting and hottest chile, and was the fastest-moving among his roasted chiles that Tuesday morning at the farmers market. He sells it as a seedling as well.

“If you’re up here in this altitude, it’s probably the only one that will do well here, because it’s more adapted to Northern New Mexico,” he says. “If you take a plant to another bioregion, it can adapt to that region’s altitude and latitude and heat and season length within seven years. It becomes a new species, a new variety based on its adaptations. … What’s going to be the key is allowing the plants to adapt to the conditions.”

One of the main providers for seeds in New Mexico is a seed company out of southeastern Arizona, the 33-year old Curry Seed and Chile Company, which claims that 80 to 90 percent of the chiles grown commercially in the US can be traced to Curry’s farm.

The concern is that when a single company produces the seeds for crops and distributes them around the country, that system of inherited resilience gets disrupted.

“Landrace chile cultivars” such as the Alcalde Improved are unique to their areas, developed by farming families over generations of selection, and have adapted to Northern New Mexico’s cooler temperatures and shorter growing season—where the last spring freeze can hit as late as May or June, compared to January for counties in the southern portion of the state. Familiar names in landrace lineup include the Chimayó, Velarde, Jemez, Escondida and San Felipe.

Guzmán has also been saving his own seeds and replanting from those since the 1980s. That’s 30 years of wisdom about what it takes to grow in Northern New Mexico bred into those plants. He cleans the seeds from chiles that are then turned into chile powder, which he also sells at his stand at the farmers market. When someone loses their crops, he’ll reload them with seeds grown from his farm.

“I think they do better,” he says. “They do a lot better than ones that you buy.”

In all of this change, Bosland cautions, let’s not lose sight of what really matters: flavor. While New Mexico’s crops may cost more to grow, he sees them as capable of dropping the competition when it comes to quality, so that’s where he focuses his attention.

“What we’re trying to do is make chile more flavorful—taste better—so that the consumer will demand the NuMex varities,” he says. All NMSU-produced varieties include the tag NuMex in their name.

That’s produced oddities, like the NuMex Trick-or-Treat, a no-heat habañero pepper sought for its flavor and aroma rather than spice, or the NuMex 6-4, which boasted six times more flavor than its competitor when it entered the market.

For an analogy, he looks to Californian wine. For years, vineyards there cranked out affordable wine by the gallon. Then Robert Mondavi came along and elevated the level of craftsmanship and care.

“I think we’re going to have to do the same thing if New Mexico wants to compete,” he says.

Like heirloom tomatoes and the campaign for more options for apples than red and yellow delicious, he says, “it costs more to grow, you have to pay a little more, but I think the American public is willing to spend a little more if they’re going to get a real quality product.”

The price difference might amount to a 10 percent hike, he estimates.

“It’s an industry that I think is really trying to adapt to all the changes and challenges that it’s currently facing, it really is, and there are a lot of people out there who have put a lot of effort into making it better for New Mexico,” says Kelly Urig, author of New Mexico Chiles: History, Legend and Lore. “I am concerned about its future. … It’s become in such high demand, and because it’s so popular all over the US now, people won’t care if it’s coming from New Mexico or a different state like Colorado or Arizona and they’ll buy it regardless because they want that taste, and because it’s popular.”

If real New Mexican chile costs more, would people pay it?

“I hope so. The only reason I hope so is that I really hope that money goes back to the farmers so they can continue to do what they’ve done for generations. This is a 400-year tradition for us,” she says. “I hope people are willing to pay a little bit so that that’s something that is continued to be part of our culture and our New Mexican identity, more than any other state.”

Romero sees a lot of strategies for farmers to boost their profit margins, going organic among them. At the New Mexico Chile Conference (yes, that’s a thing) in February of this year, he provoked chile growers with the question, “How would you like to triple your income without planting one extra acre?”

The combined forces of a limited supply and a buyer more motivated by the product’s organic label than a price tag allow for that, he argues. The level of record-keeping required for organic growers also means that at the end of the season, when a farmer realizes a crop should have been planted weeks earlier, there’s a journal detailing exactly when that crop was put in the ground.

An uncle who briefly dabbled in farming gave Romero an axiom he still often cites: Farmers don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan. That applies both to each year’s harvest, and the broader trend of growing these crops.

“I don’t see the future farmers really coming up with the solutions for the future,” he says. “If we don’t think about our future and we don’t plan for it, one day you’re going to wake up, it’s going to be there unexpectedly and you’re not going to be ready for it.”



A fellowship from the National Press Foundation supported some of the research for this story.


 

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