The bright red chile ristras hanging above the tented chile stand are the first things that catch the eye at the Farmers Chile Market.
Closer to the tent, is the unmistakable smell of New Mexican chiles. For many in New Mexico, chile season is the highlight of autumn, and stands, including the Farmers Chile Market, are signs that meals are about to get a little more flavorful.
Jhett Kendall Browne and his dad, Jhett Anthony Browne, work the stand from August to October, selling around 8,000 sacks of chiles every year.
Jhett Kendall Browne said his dad was the first person to start commercially roasting chiles in Albuquerque in 1977, and he has roasted chiles alongside his dad since he was 12. “That’s about 20 years of my life. Most of my life, really,” Jhett Kendall Browne said.
How much people care about chiles, Jhett Kendall Browne said, is one thing that surprises him.
“A lot of people, they come in and they’re just full of smiles, really happy. They’re super excited to get their chiles. It’s kind of like a local tradition, a once or twice-a-year kind of thing,” Jhett Kendall Browne said.
Robert Morris, a customer, spoke about what he liked to make with chiles. “(You can) put it in anything. Chop it up, put in a little garlic salt, mix it in macaroni and cheese and hamburgers. You can’t get that taste with Tabasco,”Morris said.
Morris has been to 15 different countries, but he makes it a point to visit New Mexico and buy chiles every year. “There’s nothing like it,” Morris said.
The effect of big business on small farmers is a concern for the Farmers Chile Market. There is a red chile shortage this year, Jhett Kendall Browne said. He said this is due to small farmers’ inability to remain competitive with corporate farmers who sell to grocery conglomerates such as Kroger and Walmart.
Holly Brause, a research scientist at the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, wrote in an article about the uncertain future of chile in New Mexico. Water scarcity in the US Southwest “augmented by drought, climate change, and increased competition” puts the future of agriculture in New Mexico in jeopardy - especially heritage crops like chile that require specific conditions to maintain both quality and quantity.
“It sounds like the alarm bells are ringing,” Jhett Kendall Browne said about the dwindling chile industry. “I don’t think it’s quite there yet, but I think in the next three to five years, we might be there.”
Though concerned, Jhett Kendall Browne seemed confident that there would always be some small farmers to supply the stands like his own.
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Over the noise of the propane roasters as a breeze carried the warm, spicy aroma, “If there are no farmers left. I’ll have to start my own,” Jhett Kendall Browne said.
Amy Dotson is a freelance reporter and photographer at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com.