“Chile growing started up here,” says Danny Farrar of Rancho La Jolla, a chile farm in the small town of Velarde. By “up here,” he means northern New Mexico, not the southern part of the state — a distinction he feels compelled to draw in light of the ubiquity of the almighty Hatch, which is what most people think of when they think of the New Mexican green chile.
The southern New Mexican village of Hatch has a massively popular chile festival every year, and, as a result of one of the most successful agriculture marketing campaigns of the last century, the “Hatch” name has become something of a catchall for New Mexican chiles, despite the wide variety of strains found throughout the state. “A lot of those ‘Hatch chiles’ aren’t even grown in New Mexico,” says Matt Romero, who farms chiles in northern New Mexico’s Espanola Valley. Farrar and Romero are among a handful of chile farmers in the northern part who are devoted to growing traditional, unaltered strains via small, mom-and-pop operations. “Up here,” Farrar says, “it’s truck farming: I can put everything I grow in the back of my pickup and go to the farmer’s market in Santa Fe.” By contrast, southern New Mexican chile farmers might need a fleet of trucks and farm dozens of acres.
Of course one need not dismiss the Hatch chile to appreciate the chiles of the north. Real Hatch chiles are delicious — they were bred way back in 1907 to be mild, meaty, and flavorful. But the heirloom northern New Mexico chiles are equally worthy of attention, and while they don’t have anything close to the same name recognition (or marketing budget) as the Hatch, their underground status is part of the appeal. “In certain areas of California, there’s great wine, but most people don’t know about it,” Romero says by way of analogy, referring to the state’s smaller winemaking regions. “Those wines are consumed by a local, knowledgeable group of people, and the best varieties never leave the region. It’s the same up here with the chiles. We grow small boutique acres. We sell locally.”
Despite farming at high altitude, Romero and other locals claim that the growing conditions of the Espanola Valley — which straddles unceded traditional homelands of the Pueblo, Tigua, Jicarilla Apache, and Ute people — are just right for chiles. “We’re at 10,000, 12,000 feet,” Romero says. “We have four seasons. It gets cool at night even in the dead of summer. And our days are longer. In the south, those regions weren’t originally farming areas — they irrigated. Here, the Indigenous have been farming forever.”
But the biggest part of the appeal of northern New Mexican chiles is their flavor. “Green chile’s why you move here; red chile’s why you stay,” says Romero. But “the really good chile comes from the heritage varieties,” says Gillian Joyce, executive director of Alianza Agro-Cultura de Taos, a local agriculture advocacy group. She’s talking about the non-hybridized chiles that families sling from roadside stands between the north New Mexico towns of Velarde and Rinconada, 23 miles south of Taos; that local farmers sell at farmer’s markets, and northern New Mexicans bring in bushels to dinner parties. Despite their beloved status among northerners, these are largely unnamed chiles — chiles that, like heirloom tomatoes, aren’t the result of large-scale commercial agriculture, but the product of history.
“They’re all a little different,” Farrar says. “They could be from Santo Domingo Pueblo. Sandia Pueblo. San Felipe Pueblo. Each little village has its own strain. But in general, the northern New Mexican green chile is thinner-skinned, maybe because we have a shorter growing season. And it’s a little sweeter, especially when it turns red.” (Red chiles are just green chiles that eventually change color.)
To say that New Mexicans take chiles seriously would be an understatement. The official state question (the only one in the nation) is Red or green?, and local enthusiasm for the chiles is especially high in fall, when green chile season is at its peak.
Like New Mexico itself, the green chile symbolically fuses the cultures of the Hispano and Indigenous peoples that have inhabited the land for centuries. “New Mexico has its own distinct culture,” says the state’s poet laureate Levi Romero, who teaches Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. “Especially in the northern part of the state, where our origins are European and Mexican.” (New Mexico only became an American state in 1912.) “We are a mix of Native Indigenous blood and Spanish blood. That makes us New Mexican, and so does our food.”
Of course, the so-called green chile is not a monolith. Throughout New Mexico there are maybe 100 strains of the long green pods the state is known for, and connoisseurs like Farrar could probably Pepsi Challenge them. Northern chiles tend to be sweeter and also hotter (though not exclusively so). And it’s because of that heat that it can be hard to find local chiles served at restaurants in northern tourist centers like Taos and Santa Fe — restaurants often prefer to play it safe by serving milder southern chiles to out-of-towners.
Visitors who want to experience the northern New Mexican chile can hit the weekend farmers markets in Santa Fe, Espanola, and especially Taos, where they can sample the work of local celebrity chile roaster Marcos Cortez at Cid’s Food Market. Cortez’s family has been growing chiles here since the 1980s; he learned the art of roasting at 13 and, now at 38, he’s a veteran 20-year employee of Cid’s and a chile-roasting purist.
“You have to keep an eye on your chile,” Cortez tells me. “You have to pay attention so it doesn’t burn. I use an old-school hand-held roaster that Danny [Farrar] sold us and it gives me control when I’m flipping.” He knows by the sound of the whooshing when his flame has reached the ideal temperature. “The main trick,” he says, “is sweating it, cooking it in a plastic bag. That helps to blister the skin.”
Joe Marcoline, owner of the small-batch farm-to-bottle hot sauce brand Taos Hum, grows 20 different kinds of chiles at Walking Trout Farm, his 26 acres in Velarde, outside Taos. He picks one of the classic northern New Mexico green chiles and holds it up to the light. “It’s darker green,” he says, comparing it to the Hatch. “Hotter, with a real distinctive, robust autumn flavor.”
With the exception of Farrar and a scattering of others, most farmers don’t even attempt to grow chiles this far north in the state, but with his background as a hydrogeologist, Marcoline located what he considers a “rare microclimate that’s perfect for peppers,” and built his own irrigation system, greenhouses, wood-fired bed systems, and pumps. “The harvest is predictably abundant,” he says of the area, “and the colors are always vibrant, just like the Taos sunsets.”
The divide between the northern and southern chiles is indicative of a larger cultural divide within New Mexico, one that goes far beyond matters of heat and pod color. “Northern New Mexico is unique,” says Farrar. “We were isolated for hundreds of years, but [culturally] southern New Mexico is more like Texas. The state’s divided in half.”
The split is largely economic, as well. Matt Romero claims that in the north, “Santa Fe is really the only wealthy city. A lot of people have been here a long time and have become farmers by necessity.” In his county of Rio Arriba, the poverty rate hovered around 24 percent in 2019. The chiles, then, have become an important point of pride for Northern New Mexicans, especially for the small-scale farmers who’ve persisted here in the face of bigger-budgeted, commercial-scale operations in the south.
“I was an electrician for 20, 25 years, but I returned to farming,” says Farrar. “Farming is how I grew up. But you have to love it. It’s a lot of work. We get hailstorms, frost. It’s risky. But it’s my connection to my grandparents. And there’s something about watching things grow,” he says. “If you’re ever irrigating under a full moon, the trees shimmer and shine.”
Diana Spechler is a novelist and essayist based in Texas. Adria Malcolm is a photojournalist and cinematographer based in her hometown of Albuquerque, NM, focusing on long-term immersive stories.