New Mexico prides itself on having the best chile in the world, but a shortage of farmhands could leave a big portion of this year’s bumper crop rotting on the vine.

“We have one of the best chile crops the state has ever seen because the weather just set up perfectly in most areas,” Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, said Tuesday.

“There are some farmers that got hit by monsoons in a negative way, but there’s tons of chile on these plants, so we’re going to see a huge loss if we don’t get it picked,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers and farmers in the Hatch Valley in Southern New Mexico are blaming the labor shortage on the extra unemployment insurance benefit payments they believe are keeping workers at home instead of in the field, and they’re urging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to “immediately” cut them off.

In a letter to the governor, Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte and Reps. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences and Luis Terrazas of Silver City contend the supplemental unemployment benefits are responsible for a lack of workers “in virtually every area of our state’s economy.”

“Red and green chile are the iconic crop of our state and your administration’s lackluster response to this problem may cost our state a valuable crop season for these family farms and may drive some out of business altogether,” they wrote. “People in Southern New Mexico are witnessing firsthand how the chile industry is becoming a casualty of our flawed supplemental unemployment insurance program. Though the chile farmers of our state may bear the early burden of this labor shortage, it is not long before other agricultural industries feel the effects of this policy.”

Actually, it’s already happening, said Joe Paul Lack, who grows chile in addition to onions and pecans. He said he’ll probably only be able to harvest half of the 80 acres of onions he grew this year because he doesn’t have enough workers to do the job.

“We were probably 20 percent short last year, but we’re more than 50 percent short this year on our help,” he said. “You go around in Hatch and just look up and down the streets, there’s plenty of people; there’s just nobody working.”

Lack said he asks past employees why they aren’t working for him now and that they tell him they don’t need the money because they’re collecting unemployment, including an extra $300-a-week payment set to expire in September.

“I don’t think they have an incentive to work,” he said. “They’re doing fine sitting at home not having to work. Listen, we’re human, and if I didn’t have to work and I could make the same money, man, I’d do the same thing.”

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email “there is no evidence whatsoever to support the partisan assertion that the federal unemployment supplement is somehow singlehandedly driving or solely responsible for workforce re-entry issues” in New Mexico or elsewhere.

She pointed to a working paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco that found the $300 weekly supplement “has been making a small but likely noticeable contribution to job-finding rates and employers’ perceptions of worker availability.” In other words, only a small share of job seekers would rather remain unemployed and collect a government subsidy than accept a job offer, according to the working paper.

Still, Sackett said the Lujan Grisham administration is considering a variety of ideas to help the state’s chile farmers.

“The governor is considering a range of potential actions that would both demonstrate the state’s support for its signature crop and provide short-term relief to the industry, including the possibility of assigning federal stimulus funds to support temporary wage supplements for farm workers,” she wrote.

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte met with farmers and the New Mexico Chile Association this week to discuss industry concerns and identify possible solutions, Sackett wrote.

“Those conversations about the issue have been productive and are ongoing,” she wrote. “As anyone in the industry will tell you, labor has been an issue in agriculture for a long time; the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.”

But the Republican lawmakers who sent the letter to the governor, along with a news release declaring that “Lujan Grisham leaves farmers out to dry,” believe the extra unemployment insurance benefit payments are keeping people at home instead of going to work.

In an action some some consider an incentive to get the unemployed to return to work, other states, primarily those led by Republican governors, stopped paying the $300-a-week federal supplemental benefit. New Mexico will keep it in place until it expires in September.

Lujan Grisham said in June that ending the supplemental benefit early was “awfully punitive.”

“But we do want to incentivize workers to go to work,” she said at the time. “We do.”

Gary Shiflett, who has been farming in Southern New Mexico for 43 years, said “nobody’s gonna get out and work as long as the government keeps giving everybody money.” He said what could end up happening is New Mexico chile farmers could go out of business, ending the state’s reputation for having the best chile in the world.

“Our governor, I’m sorry, but she’s horrible,” he said. “She don’t understand.”

Robbs, the head of the New Mexico Chile Association, said chile farmers usually start harvesting their crops the first or second week of August.

“That’ll go, weather permitting, into end of September, early October, and then the red chile season will start,” he said.

“We’re a little bit too late on this problem; it took everybody by surprise,” he added. “I guess we should have seen it coming. But we were hopeful that there would be workers once the state opened back up. But there’s not. They’re staying at home.”

Robbs said the association “has gotten a lot of pushback on social media” from people asking why employers in the chile industry don’t offer higher wages.

“There’s only so much that these farmers and processors can pay until they’re making negative income,” he said. “Businesses can’t just pass on costs like that when they’re in the produce industry. Where does it stop? Where’s the threshold when people stop buying chile?”

Diamond, the state senator, said she’s been hearing from concerned farmers not just in the Hatch Valley but across Doña Ana County, as well as Luna and Sierra counties.

“All of them are echoing the same concern that this labor shortage is threatening the entire chile harvest this year as a whole,” she said. “We’re going into chile season within days, and we do not have a workforce, and so they’re afraid that that window is going to come just too late. So, we have two problems: Either there just won’t be chile available, or what little chile is available, the cost will be passed on to consumers, which is a concern for all New Mexicans.”

House Republicans attacked the governor on Twitter, saying the state’s chile crop “is being left to rot by [Lujan Grisham’s] economic failures.”

Diamond said the issue isn’t political.

“This isn’t a D or an R issue,” she said. “This is a red or green issue.”

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

(23) comments

Angel Ortiz

Agriculture has survived and prospered for decades by utilizing migrants for cheap almost slave labor. They take the work that others will not do. Now that the Latinos have decided not to work in States, much less in the fields picking vegetables and fruit we have some very upset consumers. Too bad. No immigrants, legal or not, have stepped away. Democrats or Republicans have no clue how to solve this issue. As someone posted here today, "go pick your own chile"!

Diane Denish

We need comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime, perhaps some of those Republican lawmakers who oppose minimum wage increases, who have offered no solutions to immigrant workers who want to come and do this back breaking work, who oppose the rescue plan for small business (aka also known as chile farmers) could get to work and pick that chile to help keep the industry they work to destroy alive.

david cartwright

Good article, NM. Thanks. I have read the comments and it seems like Santa Fe's liberal community is frothing at the mouth with disinformation and personal attacks. Remember the $300 supplemental benefit is in addition to the normal unemployment comp. Except now, the recipients don't have to prove they can't get a job, and the total benefit amounts to about $15 per hour. Sorry, folks, workers are staying home and all the fulminating about by the local nuts does not change that fundamental economic fact.

Lupe Molina

Hmm no. They're likely only getting a percentage of their previous pay through unemployment, if their eligible at all. So Id like to see some math about how you got to $15.

But while you were busy making this political, you failed to realize that your proving our point. The decision to stay home and collect even $8 an hour over breaking your back to earn $7.50 is an obvious. In fact its free market economics, capitalism at work. Remember, labor is commodity sold on the open market. If you're not offering a competitive price, why would we be surprised when the owners of that commodity don't take you up on that abysmal offer. When rich people cut corners, its smart business. When poor people find a safer way to earn more money, they're lazy? Man, this country is weird.

Mark Ortiz

Great post. Especially the part about what we call rich people for cutting corners. Speaking of cutting corners. I say pay the pickers more and if I have to cut corners in my household to pay more for chile, it'll be worth it.

John Cook

[thumbup]

Lupe Molina

Republicans oppose wage increases, oppose migrant labor, and then cry when we can't find workers to do backbreaking work for poverty wages. Get bent. Why does anyone vote for these folks anymore?

Mark Ortiz

Mutual sometimes vile, hateful, and insulting interpretations of what they think Jesus's life was about.

Prince Michael Jauregui

In the 1980's, Republican party deity (and Reagan/Bush/CIA Contra-Cocaine ring-leader) Ronald Reagan signed into law the deceptively named "Immigration and Control Act of 1986". Essentially, allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. - with employment as the only caveat.

With the typical Republican zero-regard for actual Human-Beings, the law did exactly what it was created to do: Provide an endless supply of low-wage, low-skilled and no benefits workers for wealthy cronies and "Corporate America" alike. Be clear: The so-called "Economic Boom" of the 1980's, was built -literally- upon the backs of undocumented immigrants.

Now, with more Political power and control, the DNC is cunningly attempting to replicate Reagan's heartless exploitation of undocumented immigrants for low-wage work AND low-information voters. Again, all of behalf of their wealthy benefactors. Meanwhile tens of thousands of Latino children are being held prisoners in deplorable, inhumane conditions - for years.

Diamond, Dow and longtime farmers Lack and Shiftlett: Pay a fair wage. Treat your employees well. Finally, show some Respect. Or, pick your own da** chile.

More confirmation, for what I've taught for years: The only true differences between the Republican Party and the Democrat Party are the deceptions which perpetuate, the benefactors whom they truly serve, and the toll paid by We, The People.

James Russell

We live in Idaho where our governor cut off the relief payments. That action did nothing to help the labor shortage. That’s a false narrative to blame minimal subsistence monetary help for labor shortages.

Carmela Baca

Poor agricultural farmers. I'm going to quit my job where I barely earn enough to support my family and come work for them to earn significantly less, just do they don't go out of business, said no one EVER!

Prince Michael Jauregui

Ms. Baca, Today, you win the Internet.

Patrick Brockwell

$300/week divided by 40 hrs = $7.50 an hour. If growers won't pay more they aren't gonna get help. Offering minimum wage is just saying if I could pay you less I would. Workers are saying if I can do less I will. It's the Magic of the Market on display.

Richard Reinders

$300. On top of state unemployment on top of stimulus checks, I have farmer friends offering $20.00 an hr with no takers. Luckily we have a million new workers coming across the border.

Angel Ortiz

Sorry bro. No workers coming over the border. The American Dream is gone, they're doing better south of the border.

Peter Romero

$300.00 additional on top of what they are receiving in normal unemployment benefits.

John Cook

Remember how we all laughed a few months ago when the Republican party said it was rebranding itself as 'the working man's' party. Still laughing.

mark Coble

As we move towards socialist paradise this is result.

Richard Reinders

Like employers who require workers to show proof of vaccination, are Federal and State agencies requiring and inspecting proof of vaccination from persons receiving unemployment checks and benefits?

Russell Scanlon

I’d like to see proof that “free money” is causing this labor shortage. Just one shred of proof. But showing proof is never a strong suit for “Conservatives”.

Ed Hardlied

I agree. This article is squishy, based on personal observations. Left unasked: how many of the seasonal agricultural workers are undocumented migrants, a group pilloried by Republicans?

Pam Walker

The lack of people wanting to work is hurting almost every business out there. Where I work has been trying to hire people for months and so far no luck. Biden claims he has created so many new jobs. That is a total lie. These jobs were here just why work when your income is handed to you.

John Cook

Try offering a higher hourly wage. Just a thought. One I know hasn't occurred to you.

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