It was a rough year for green chile growers along the Rio Grande. Farmers had to face another year of acute water shortages and little rainfall before the monsoons. Labor shortages hampered the harvest and the amount of chile that farmers could plant. Still, despite challenges faced by farmers, especially entering another year plagued by drought and COVID, green chile farmers as a whole were able to have a “generally” good year, according to New Mexico State University Extension vegetable specialist Dr. Stephanie Walker.
Walker noted that the monsoons brought much-needed relief to farmers along the valley, especially to southern New Mexico, which has been under extreme drought conditions for the past few years. The severity of the drought has been so extreme that the state even paid farmers not to farm earlier this year. Walker and her team observed that even though this was a relatively “good season” season for farmers, labor shortages were the greatest challenge faced by Rio Grande farmers. Similar to the restaurant industry and other service occupations, farmers have tried everything to attract workers, including better benefits and higher wages to little avail.
“It’s been getting worse through the years, and this is the worst it’s been. It’s been going down quite a while. We even increased wages dramatically, and it didn’t help us,” Glen Duggins said. Duggins owns a family-run farm in Lemitar, New Mexico.
According to Duggins labor on the farm was just part of the challenge this past season. His outlets where he distributes his chile also did not have enough staff to meet demand. Because of this they were forced to reduce their roasting and overall harvest.
Duggins also observed that the workers they were able to attract were local instead of the seasonal workers who have historically worked the fields. Many of this year’s workers were new to the line of work, and their inexperience and lack of available hands severely decreased Duggins’ ability to harvest. “Some of them would just turn around immediately when they got to the field and leave. Some would stay half a day. Some would even stay half a month. But they just weren’t able to pick very much,” Duggins said.
The shortage of labor coupled with water restrictions has forced Duggins to reduce the size of his farm from 100 acres a decade ago to 50 acres this past season. Duggins plans to further reduce the size of his farm from 50 acres to 20 acres in the upcoming season to adapt to the shortage of labor. Duggins used to employ 30 laborers during a harvest; this past season, he could only find four during the harvest.
To help farmers along the Rio Grande adapt to inexperienced and scarce labor, Page and her team have helped farmer mechanize their operations.
The lingering challenges of water and labor scarcity have forced Duggins to consider life outside the farm, as turning a profit has become increasingly difficult. “You work hard like that, and you can’t pay your bills; it’s pretty heartbreaking,” Duggins said.