Shortage Of Workers Hampers Chili Harvest In New Mexico

Southern New Mexico is America's iconic home of chili harvesting and production. But production is a fraction of what's produced in India and China — countries with large pools of labor. Still, in the fall, New Mexico farmers need hundreds of workers to handpick their crops. Even paying $14 an hour, they can't find enough help.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Let's talk chili peppers. It's harvest time in New Mexico where the iconic crop has been grown for centuries. New Mexico still produces more chili peppers than any other American state. But production in the U.S. is a fraction of what's produced in India and China, countries with large pools of labor.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports that farmers in New Mexico could increase their harvest if they had the people to do it.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Abelaro Ortiz crouches to pick long green chilies off plants in a field north of Deming, New Mexico. This is not his regular job.

ABELARO ORTIZ: I was working in construction, but now I'm working here.

ROBBINS: There's not much construction work in Southwest New Mexico right now. So Ortiz bends over, snaps the peppers off the branch and fills burlap sacks with them. He gets paid according to how many sacks he fills.

ORTIZ: If you don't move your hands, you don't do nothing to earn money.

ROBBINS: If he picks fast enough, Ortiz can earn about $14 an hour, a decent wage. Still, he moved here from Mexico and became a U.S. citizen more than a decade ago so he could get what he considers better work.

Farmer Eddie Diaz says it's the same story here that farmers tell across the country: Not enough people in the U.S. want to do the tough work.

EDDIE DIAZ: I bet to pick the orders that we need. We probably need like 70 people a day.

ROBBINS: And how many can you come up with?

DIAZ: Well, here recently, we got 25 to 30.

ROBBINS: It's not just farmers like Eddie Diaz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ROBBINS: This is Border Products, the largest green chili processor in the country. It's a few miles away from the fields. Here, workers roast, clean and can chilies headed for grocery store shelves. If you think picking chilies is tough, listen to Border Products agronomist Marvin Clary describe working in a factory with capsaicin, the chemical that makes chilies hot.

MARVIN CLARY: It's kind of harsh environment working out there in the - with the jalapenos and the chilies with the capsaicin in there. It's just a harsh place to be, and some people just can't take it.

ROBBINS: Again, the problem here isn't money. Border Foods pays better than minimum wage. It's the availability of workers.

CLARY: We just get a lot of people that'll come to orientation and never show up to work.

ROBBINS: The U.S. agriculture industry is trying to find more reliable sources of labor. It's pushing Congress for immigration reform, which includes a streamlined guest worker program. Migrants could come, work and go home with less hassle. Meanwhile, countries where hot peppers are popular and the labor force is plentiful have increased production. India, especially, along with China, now far surpass chili production in the U.S. or even Mexico.

STEPHANIE WALKER: I think mechanization is the long-term answer to this.

ROBBINS: Stephanie Walker is a vegetable expert with New Mexico State University. She is trying to develop a machine which will harvest the delicate green chilies without splitting them. New Mexico farmers are already using machines to harvest the chilies once they turn red. Red chili is made into paprika, spice mix and salsa.

WALKER: Since most of it is powdered or at least flaked, a little bit of damage doesn't hurt. And that's really helped the competiveness of the red chili industry here in New Mexico.

ROBBINS: Walker says it could be a while before a green chili machine is commercially available. Until then, the peppers for chile rellenos and chile verde will be picked by hand, if there are workers to pick them. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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