Much has changed over the past century in New Mexico’s chile country. Nick Carson, president of Rio Valley Chili in Rincon, N.M., remembers when irrigating meant mucking around in the field with a shovel. Today, thanks to laser-leveled fields, farmers’ boots rarely see a drop of mud. Green chile rellenos and burritos smothered in smoky red chile still weigh down people’s plates, but now New Mexico’s $400 million industry is fired by red chile powder processed by companies like Carson’s. Rio Valley Chili is fully modernized, supplying some 12 million pounds of processed red chile each year to clients such as McCormick Spices and Kraft Foods Inc. There’s even a laboratory on-site, where technicians analyze and blend powders based on chile type, color and heat.

One thing, however, hasn’t changed: Most of the Southwest’s chiles are still picked by hand. But if New Mexico chile farmers plan to survive — never mind prosper — they may need to discard this vestige of the past. Thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement — which eliminated tariffs between the United States, Mexico and Canada — and the entrance of both China and India into the World Trade Organization, New Mexico’s chile industry is increasingly under attack from global competition. “The number-one challenge is to mechanize,” says Richard Phillips, senior project manager with New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Extension Plant Sciences. “We have now half the acreage in chile as before NAFTA, and 80 percent of the pepper products we eat in the United States are imported — that number is atrocious.”

The problem isn’t just finding cheap labor, it’s finding enough people to pick all those chiles. Domestic workers have long avoided farm work, and now even migrant workers are steering clear of the fields, says Lou Biad of the New Mexico Chile Association. “Americans do not go to the farms to work,” says Biad, who is also a partner in the Radium Springs-based processor, Rezolex; instead, they choose construction and service jobs. That’s because farm work is notoriously difficult, and the rewards are scant: In New Mexico, farms are exempt from minimum wage and workers’ compensation laws. Still, foreign producers can get by with even cheaper labor. “People don’t realize how competitive this market is, how difficult it is for farmers to survive,” says Biad. “If automobile companies can’t compete, can you imagine farmers?” Cheaper chile imports today come from India, China and Zimbabwe; the jalapeño market has already moved to Mexico, and Peru has taken over 40 percent of the paprika market in the past five years. Mechanizing the harvest, Biad says, is the only way to go.

For advocates of the local workforce, however, that’s a scary prospect. Researchers, including those at NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute, are focused on trying to figure out how to make chile-picking machines feasible. But “no one’s talking about what that loss of jobs will mean,” says Diana Bustamante, director of the nonprofit Colonias Development Council in Las Cruces. Her organization became interested in agricultural labor issues after hundreds of farm workers were displaced by mechanization of the onion harvest. Despite the drop in migrant farmworkers, there’s still a workforce that is firmly rooted in the fields. Most of them are in their 40s, 50s, even 60s and 70s, and they have been doing this work for most of their lives. If machines took their jobs, they’d have nowhere else to go, says Bustamante. But at this point, thanks to inadequate picking machines, these workers are still not obsolete. Chile is a tough crop to harvest by machine, says Ed Hughs, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Lab in Mesilla Valley. Green and red chiles grow on the same plant, but green chiles are harvested in the summer when the peppers are firm and easily separated from the plant. Red chiles dry on the plant throughout the fall, and the fragile pods require a gentle touch. “When you get into mechanized harvesting,” he says, “they do more damage than with manual harvesting, so quality is an issue.”

Since the relatively small chile market is unlikely to draw interest from the same international manufacturers that revolutionized the cotton harvest, smaller companies have tried to fill the void and work with the Southwest’s chile farmers. Pik Rite Inc. has sold about 20 chile harvesters in the Southwest, says Jim McDonnall, owner of McDonnall Harvester and Parts, a Pik Rite dealer in Delta, Ohio. But McDonnall, who has tinkered with the harvesters himself for more than a decade, can’t help laughing about the fact that two of the three manufacturers are back East. “That just shows our ignorance, that we’re the ones trying to do something,” he says. “The fact that no one else wants to do it shows how difficult it is.”

In Derry, N.M., Carl Duran grew up knowing firsthand of the problems involved. His father started one of the first chile-processing plants in the area, and today, Duran and Sons grows about 140 acres of chile and processes some 600,000 pounds each year. Duran says he faces competition not only from foreign companies, but also larger local businesses — the ones that can afford to pay higher farm worker wages or buy mechanized harvesters. “We can’t compete with the big chile plants,” he says. “By doing more, they’re able to do it at a lower cost. But it costs me more to do basically the same thing.”

Good workers are hard to keep, he says, whether they’re picking chiles or driving harvesters. Meanwhile, fuel prices keep going up, water is scarce and the threat of disease is ever-present. “Growing chile is not an easy job,” he says sadly. “And it’s not a glamorous job either.”

The author writes from Albuquerque, New Mexico.