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High Demand For New Mexico Green Chiles Leaves Restaurants Scrambling To Find Local Supplies

If you go out to eat in New Mexico, there’s a good chance your server will ask you, “Red, green, or Christmas?”, when ordering. It basically means, do you want your food smothered in red or green chile…or both.

In this state, the green chile is king. So much so that it’s the official state vegetable and the peppers are often an essential ingredient in pretty much any food group, from sauces and stews to chili rellenos.

“New Mexico is special,” said Carole White the CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association. “You can go across the border in Colorado, Arizona and Texas and you will not get New Mexican chile.”

Red and green chiles have been part of New Mexico’s culture for more than a century. And White isn’t alone in her affinity for these peppers, which are a spicier cousin of the Anaheim chili.

While most locals have always been fans, over the last several years, officials have worked hard improve brand recognition of New Mexico’s iconic crop outside state lines.

Today, demand is starting to outpace supply, meaning many restaurants are now struggling to make it through the year on their locally grown stashes. And to avoid running out of chiles altogether, they’re beginning to look internationally.

“A huge portion of that demand is coming from Mexico,” said Rick Ledbetter, the president of the New Mexico Chile Growers Association.

While drought plays some role in the issue, the main problem for state growers is labor because the chiles are delicate and have to be hand picked.

“It’s just very hard to find people in the U.S. who will do that kind of work,” Ledbetter said.

Chile farmers typically pay by the bushel, but Ledbetter estimates most workers in his area earn about $12 an hour.

According to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, farms in the state grew about 8,300 acres of chiles in 2015. Compare that to the 86,000 acres that just one state in Mexico is using to grow chiles.

“So right there tells you where we’re at,” he said .

Today Ledbetter’s hope lies in machines that can pick these delicate vegetables, but large scale use of those is still a ways off.

Carrie Jung Senior Field Correspondent, Education Desk Carrie Jung began her public radio career in Albuquerque, N.M., where she fell in love with the diverse cultural scene and unique political environment of the Southwest. Jung has been heard on KJZZ since 2013 when she served as a regular contributor to the Fronteras Desk from KUNM Albuquerque. She covered several major stories there including New Mexico's Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and Albuquerque's failed voter initiative to ban late-term abortions. Jung has also contributed stories about environmental and Native American issues to NPR's Morning Edition, PRI's The World, Al Jazeera America, WNYC's The Takeaway, and National Native News. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's in marketing, both from Clemson University. When Jung isn't producing content for KJZZ she can usually be found buried beneath mounds of fabric and quilting supplies. She recently co-authored a book, "Sweet And Simple Sewing," with her mother and sister, who are fabric designers.