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Labor shortage impacts New Mexico chile harvest

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – 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, told the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“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 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.”
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.
Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email that there is no evidence 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.”
Still, Sackett said the Lujan Grisham administration is considering a variety of ideas to help chile farmers, including the possibility of assigning federal stimulus funds to support temporary wage supplements for farm workers.
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte met with farmers and the New Mexico Chile Association recently to discuss industry concerns and identify possible solutions.
“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 believe the extra unemployment insurance benefit payments are keeping people at home instead of going to work.
In an action 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 benefit early was “punitive.”
“But we do want to incentivize workers to go to work,” she said at the time.
Gary Shiflett, who has been farming 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 chile association, said farmers usually start harvesting crops the first or second week of August.
“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 Dona 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.”