On a recent fall morning, Clayton Brascoupe was out checking his chile fields near Tesuque. He’d already harvested his green chiles, which have been roasted and put away for the winter. The fruits still hanging on the plants will be made into red chile powder or left out for seed.
“The older variety I have comes out more with a rust-looking color—if I were to compare, say, some of the chiles that are coming out of Hatch or Las Cruces, you’d be able to tell the difference with this variety and the variety they grow down there,” he says. “There is a different color, a different taste, a different texture.”
This time of year, the state is nothing short of chile crazed. The smell of roasting chile permeates grocery store parking lots and wafts through neighborhoods. After peeling pounds and pounds of the spicy varieties, people all across the state are carefully avoiding touching their eyes—and freezers everywhere are stuffed with gallon bags of chile.
Yet New Mexico’s relationship with chile is felt strongly all year round—the state even has “Red or Green?” as its official state question.
“With chiles, some of the pueblo communities have old varieties they’ve been growing for generations,” Brascoupe, of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, says. “Realize that chiles migrated up here with the Indians out of Mexico—but they’ve been adapted and grown for probably 400 to 500 years in this area.” Native communities, he says, treat chiles as a traditional crop.
But while the cultural importance of chile remains unshaken, the actual crop has seen better days. Between the shaky agricultural market and the influx of various diseases, commercial chile farmers say they are struggling to survive.
Scientists believe genetically modified chile seeds could be the answer to the crop’s woes. But farmers like Brascoupe fear the changes could affect traditional communities, family farms and the future of the chile itself.
In fact, two years ago, the New Mexico Acequia Association and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association drafted “A Declaration of Seed Sovereignty: A living document for New Mexico.”
Based on that document, in 2007, the Legislature passed Senate Joint Memorial 38, which recognizes the significance of native seeds to both cultural heritage and food security in the state. In it, the state agrees to support the New Mexico Food & Seed Sovereignty Alliance to prevent the genetic contamination of seeds, strengthen small-scale agriculture and increase the cultivation of native crops within communities. During that same time, Brascoupe says, a number of pueblo communities drafted similar resolutions.
“Our basic stance is that we’re opposed to genetic engineering because there is potential for contamination with our traditional or heirloom crops,” he says. “Once those things have been contaminated, there is really no way of un-contaminating them that we’re aware of.”
Nonetheless, a year later, the Legislature funded research to study the feasibility of developing genetically engineered chile seeds. These seemingly conflicted actions acknowledge the stark reality of the state’s chile industry: It’s in trouble. The question remains whether science is its best hope for the future.