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NM chile yield down due to disease

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--Mother Nature really had it out for some of New Mexico's chile farmers this season.

A combination of too much rain, wind, hail, insects and hungry animals made it tough for farmers--especially in Luna County and the Las Uvas Valley in southern New Mexico--to produce their fiery crop.

Now that the 2008 harvest has wrapped up, early results indicate the chile yield is down 20 to 30 percent, said Stephanie Walker, Extension vegetable specialist and chile breeding program researcher at New Mexico State University.

"It was another very challenging year for chile," Walker said in a telephone interview. "The climactic conditions have taken their toll--and in some areas it caused serious devastation to yields."

For the third straight year, excess moisture led to the spread of bacterial leaf spot, a destructive disease that causes the plant to lose leaves and not produce peppers.

Walker said "hot spots" for leaf spot this season included the Deming area and eastern portions of the state.

In Luna County, 25 percent of the crop was affected by disease and parasites, said Jack Blandford, county agriculture Extension agent.

"We also had some hail damage around Deming the first part of August, last part of July, but most of (the loss) is due to an unusually wet summer," Blandford said. "Last year, we had a lot more loss, but with high labor costs it's getting harder and harder to make a crop."

Luna County is the state's top chile producing county. It's also home to Border Foods in Deming, one of the world's largest processors of green chile and jalapeno peppers.

Border Foods, which gets most of its contracted crop from Luna County farmers, filled orders and compensated for some of the shortfall by growing a small crop in Mexico, said Marvin Clary, field supervisor and agronomist with Border Foods.

"Some farmers were affected more than others, but on the average the majority did not make contract this year. Even the best of the (crop) managers were affected," Clary said.

Deming-area grower Don Hartman said his three farms were mostly spared damage from heavy rainfall in July and August. One of his farms recorded 25 inches of rain and efforts focused on trying to keep the water from standing in the fields, which can lead to disease.

"The yields were down but I came up better than most around here. It was just luck, I guess. I was an exception to the norm," Hartman said. "A lot of guys harvested half of what their contract was."

Chile farmers also had to fight off hungry rabbits that invaded fields just as the young chile plants were getting established in early spring, Walker said.

"A lot of chile fields border desert land so a lot of rabbit fencing had to be put up," Walker said. "Fencing companies are making a killing off of chile farmers this year."

It's not all bad news for the 2008 crop. Early assessments show the Hatch area and Dona Ana County did well, Walker said.

The supply of fresh chile remained strong for the locals needing their fix, said T.J. Runyon, owner of Mesilla Valley Produce in Las Cruces.

"We were able to meet all of our demands. It was a good season as far as the fresh market. We keep expanding the fresh market, and that's always good," said Runyon, whose company moved out tens of thousands of cases of chile both in and out of state.

"New Mexicans were able to get chile and it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been," Runyon said.

Walker said she and other researchers are looking into ways to target the spread and treatment of chile plant diseases that affect yields. Meanwhile, farmers will keep doing what they do best--keeping a positive outlook for next year's crop.

"We're ready to get this one behind us and try another one," Hartman said. "What do you do? It's not like we can just quit and just find a job. We have land payments and bills to pay. We have to make it through."

Date: 1/30/09

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