For New Mexico's Chiles, The Enemy Isn't Just Drought But Salt, Too
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Salty soil is a common problem for farmers in the arid West, especially during a drought. The lack of rain means that salts aren't flushed out of the soil. In New Mexico, one crop that suffers is the state's beloved chile pepper. From member station KJZZ, Monica Ortiz Uribe reports.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE, BYLINE: Chile is not just a crop in New Mexico, it's an identity. Whether red or green, the long, leathery pepper with its unmistakable aroma is the reigning ingredient in local cuisine. It's posted on road signs, arranged in vertical wreaths for decoration and protected by state law from imposters. But chile is facing tough times.
JOE PAUL LACK: This is the third year I have not had one acre of chile. I've been farming since the '70s.
URIBE: Joe Paul Lack is a farmer who married into New Mexico's chile dynasty. His wife's family is credited with commercializing a mild green pepper known as Big Jim. Lack farms in southern New Mexico near Hatch, where chile acreage is shrinking. Foreign competition and labor shortages are partly to blame, but so is drought.
Dry weather forces farmers to pump water from underground. It spills into irrigation canals that flow onto fields, making up for a shortage of water in the neighboring Rio Grande. But while groundwater can be a blessing, it's also a curse.
STEPHANIE WALKER: The aquifers tend to be salty.
URIBE: Stephanie Walker is a vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University. Salt is part of a geologic legacy beneath the desert, left over from ancient oceans that once covered the West. The shallow aquifer under New Mexico's chile fields concentrates the salt. Experts estimate salt content has quadrupled in the last four years.
WALKER: So the longer growers have to pump water, the more detriment to the vegetables that they're trying to grow.
URIBE: Detriment in the form of root damage, which weakens certain crops like chile. In New Mexico, production is down 40 percent from record highs a decade ago. That's despite better farming techniques that allow farmers to grow significantly more chile per acre.
PHIL KING: What we need is a couple of monster snow seasons.
URIBE: Phil King is a civil engineer and consultant for the local irrigation district. Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande depends on snowmelt. The more water in the river, the more water to flush away the salts. But as global temperatures rise, scientists predict there will be less snow to feed rivers. One federal study says the Rio Grande could lose a third of its flow by the end of the century.
KING: Our whole system is predicated on having a supply of fresh river water from the north. And if we don't, we are simply not sustainable.
URIBE: King, like others in agriculture, knows the battle against salt is happening across the West. It's fallowed more than 100,000 acres in California's San Joaquin Valley. Salty runoff from farms in the Colorado River basin was what prompted the federal government to build a desalination plant in Yuma, Ariz. That was after years of complaints from Mexican farmers downstream.
KING: We have a tendency to utilize our resources to their fullest capacity and then go through painful downsizing when necessary. What we're trying to do though is make more resilient infrastructure and more resilient production systems.
URIBE: Like installing drip irrigation, which uses less water and pushes salt away from the crop's root zone or creating systems to capture storm water. In New Mexico, farmers pledge not to let their state's beloved chile pepper die. They'll stick it out until nature forces them out. For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Hatch, New Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.