Matt Romero roasts his Alcalde Improved chile Sept. 13 at his booth at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Romero started growing chile and other crops 10 years ago on a family farm in Alcalde. – Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican. As chile season reaches its peak, culinary pros laud heritage of state’s official vegetable
Of the 6.5 pounds of chile the average person in the Unites States consumed in 2010, there’s about a 1 in 3 chance a portion of that chile was grown in New Mexico. According to the state Department of Agriculture, New Mexico chile producers planted more than 9,000 acres of chile last year, which amounted to 66,600 tons of harvested chile.
Improved chile with 40-year history
Although farmer Matt Romero is known for many of his sustainable crops — including potatoes, eggplant and Romanesco broccoli — it’s his family’s cultivated chile that leaves a lasting impression.
“As far as local chile, most don’t believe it is. It’s too big and too meaty,” Romero said of his Alcalde Improved chile, which began its four-decade evolution in the early 1980s.
At that time, specialists at the Sustainable Agricultural Science Center in Alcalde, an extension branch of New Mexico State University, were making efforts to improve a regional chile plant known as local chile — a small, thin pod that had great flavor but did not produce adequate yield, Romero said.
By crossing local chile with Sandia chile, a Southern New Mexico variety known for its heat and sturdy texture, the specialists created Española Improved, a hybrid chile.
“That combination produced a vastly superior plant,” Romero said. “All the things that made local chile so desirable were included, such as its ability to germinate in cool soil and adaptability to the region.”
Before Española Improved was released to the public, a specialist gave sample seeds to Romero’s uncle, Arthur Martinez, a farmer who owned land near the agricultural center. Martinez planted the seeds, loved the results and continued to grow the chile for many decades, selecting the best pods every year for seeds. “In a way,” Romero said, “my uncle improved the variety [Española Improved] by growing it in the same place every year.”
By 2001, Romero, then a chef, was ready for a career change. He began farming in Alcalde on a small area of land — less than an eighth of an acre — using seeds he inherited from Martinez.
Ten years later, Romero now grows what he calls Alcalde Improved chile, a high-quality Northern New Mexico chile with plenty of heat and meat, which is the combined result of the local chile from the ’80s, Española Improved and his uncle’s chile.
Romero sells his chile at several local farmers markets, including the Santa Fe Farmers Market, for $50 per bushel. But for Romero, chile is more than a source of income, it’s a crop that plays a vital role in regional culture.
“It’s actually a cultural commodity,” he said. “People will eat terrible tomatoes all winter, but they won’t resort to canned chile.” By the season’s end, Romero will have harvested more than 1,300 bushels of green chile — perfect for making many pots of green chile stew, he said.