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Sep-03-2010 16:36printcomments

New and Enduring Harvest Festivals

Now known the world over, the Hatch Valley Chile Festival with its iconic long green peppers gives many people their first and perhaps lasting impression of New Mexico, its land and its people.

Hatch Valley Chile Festival

(LAS CRUCES, NM) - As the first gusts of fall break the long, dragging heat of summer, harvest festivals are taking shape everywhere. And in the southern New Mexico borderlands plenty of celebrations are in store. Indisputably the Queen of the Festival, the Hatch Valley Chile Festival kicks off the season this Labor Day weekend.

“The chile heads are gathering,” Marcia Nordyke, festival chair, told Frontera NorteSur. Located in northern Dona Ana County about a half-hour drive north of the county seat of Las Cruces, the two-day event scheduled for September 4 and 5 celebrates the Hatch Valley’s most famous crop-chile peppers of all sizes, shapes and Scoville (the old heat measurement system) units. First launched back in 1972, the festival has witnessed changes over the years but retained a local flavor, Nordyke said.

“We never got big. We never got corporate,” she said. Still, festival attendance has grown from an estimated 15,000 chile-lovers who turned out annually during the 1970s to an average 20,000 or more. Last year, 30,000 people swamped the festival grounds.

Nordyke attributed the unexpected turn out to a possible combination of the recession-influenced “staycation” trend of people sticking close to home during holidays and a healthy sprinkling of out-of-staters with the wherewithal to travel.

“We were just amazed,” Nordyke recalled. “We were just packed the entire weekend.” In recent years, Nordyke said, the local chile festival has been featured on the BBC, CBS Sunday Morning, the Food Channel and in media as faraway as China and Korea. “It’s just an amazing thing for this community of 1,600 people.”

The Hatch Valley Chile Festival committee has not done an economic impact analysis of its annual fiesta, but the small town becomes a beehive of activity during an action-packed weekend as grocery stores, gas stations, clothing and other stores rake in the bucks, Nordyke said.

With the closing of Hatch’s only motel this year, a 12-room establishment, hospitality businesses in the nearby cities of Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Deming also stand to benefit, she added.

Although an enchilada dinner and a barbecue which accompanied early festivals are no longer part of the program, 2010 festival goers will find both familiar and new activities including horseshoe tosses, a kid's chile toss, a new rock climb, and entertainment featuring country swing and mariachi music. At high noon on Saturday, September 4, Hatch High School senior Lisa Terrazas will be coronated as the 2010 festival queen.

A member of Future Farmers of America, Terrazas was recently quoted in the Las Cruces Bulletin as saying she wanted to study horticulture in college and breed a tasty, hot chile hybrid. If the Hatch teen’s dreams come true, she would add a female touch to the legacies of New Mexico State University chile breeders Fabian Garcia, Roy Harper, Roy Nakayama and Paul Bosland, all of whom have had a hand in the prospering of New Mexico’s postcard crop.

At the Hatch festival, daring eaters can prove their bravado by seeing who can gobble down the fastest 8-10 New Mexican green chile pods. A sack of chile will be awarded to each winner. One contest is reserved for women, the other for men. Now in her fifth year as festival chair, Nordyke insisted that women are faster chile eaters than men.

“It’s all about chile. We say we are the chile capital of the world. We grow the best chile in the world,” Nordyke asserted. This year, she added, the extra hot weather made the harvest a little late but ripe fields are currently “looking good” and producing 40 lb. sacks of chile that average $20-$25 in retail price each. Last year, Hatch and other New Mexico farmers earned about $58 million from the chile crop.

Now known the world over, the Hatch Valley Chile Festival with its iconic long green peppers gives many people their first and perhaps lasting impression of New Mexico, its land and its people.

The Hatch festival marks the beginning of an event-filled regional harvest season in Dona Ana County. Government agencies, private businesses and individuals all help sponsor and promote a pair of wine festivals, the Whole Enchilada Festival in Las Cruces, a pumpkin bash and a brand new pecan festival. A new onion festival was organized in Las Cruces earlier this year.

Noreen Jaramillo, public information officer for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA), said the success of Hatch’s festival has inspired locals to celebrate other important regional crops.

“They’re trying to create that feel that the Hatch Chile Festival has for other products in New Mexico,” Jaramillo said in an interview.

Farmers Anna and Steve Lyles, who cultivate several hundred acres of pecans, pumpkins, corn, wheat, onions, and chile on the edge of growing Las Cruces, are two of the biggest movers and shakers behind the festival frenzy.

Planned for Lyles Family Farms, the third annual New Mexico Pumpkin Festival is scheduled for October 9 and 10 of this year. The first two events, Anna Lyles said, drew between 6-7,000 people. Often overlooked in the annals of New Mexico agriculture, 4,030 acres of pumpkins were harvested on 139 farms in Dona Ana and three other New Mexico counties in 2007, according to the last Census of Agriculture.

On October 30 and 31, even as newly-harvested pumpkins glow with stares of Halloween terror, the Lyles’ farm is expected to buzz again with life. The first annual pecan festival is billed as an event brimming with local pecan vendors, live country music, horse-drawn hayrides, ponies, a pecan ice cream eating contest, a horseshoe tournament, and an art exhibit entitled “Nuts for Art.”

According to Lyles, conversations with NMDA staff this year identified the need for a pecan festival in the Las Cruces area, which in a manner similar to Hatch and its chile, could lay claim to be the “Pecan Capital of the World.”

“This county is covered with more pecan trees per square mile than anywhere else,” Lyles told Frontera NorteSur.

“A lot of people around here know we have a lot of trees but don’t know what they are…we’re going to educate people about agriculture.”

The 2007 Census of Agriculture counted 1,145 farms in Dona Ana County shaded with 25,597 acres of pecan trees; sources close to the industry report additional plantings within the past three years. Like chile, New Mexico-grown pecans have also acquired an international reputation. According to the NMDA, pecan exports amounted to 25 million pounds and netted producers $40 million in 2007 and 2008.

If the Lyles did not have their hands full managing multiple crops and two festivals, the couple, which has been in full-time farming for two decades, dedicate a lot of their time to teaching city slickers about farm life- a lifestyle few in the modern United States know. The Lyles operate the Mesilla Valley Maze, a corn-filled adventure plotted and sculpted on about 45 acres of land with the aid of GPS technology. The NMDA promotes the Lyles’ maze as a destination stop in the emerging state industry of agricultural tourism.

Every fall, an estimated 20,000 school children visit the maze on field trips, Anna Lyles said. “I don’t do any sleeping from about now to November,” the Las Cruces area farmer half-joked. “Southern New Mexico is festival capital. There’s a fiesta for everything.”

Editor’s Note: The following story is the latest installment in Frontera NorteSur’s special coverage of the southern New Mexico borderland. With the 2012 Centennial of New Mexico Statehood practically around the corner, we view this moment as an important opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future of the region. With this spirit in mind, the on-going series examines economic, environmental and other trends shaping the history, culture and identity of southern New Mexico. Support for the series was provided by the McCune Charitable Foundation of Santa Fe and the New Mexico Humanities Council.


Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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