Heated Competition

The chile king is a jerk.

At least, that's what his competition says. But does Roger Sanchez care?


Another semi-trailer has just arrived with a load of fresh pods from Hatch, New Mexico, and Roger wants to move it. Quick. He doesn't have time to worry about what other vendors say.

"It's three bushels for $30 or one for $18," he barks to a customer. "Hot, medium -- whatever you want."

Sanchez arrived on Federal Boulevard just four years ago and already outsells most of the longtime vendors. He's unloaded thousands of pounds of fresh peppers and gained a reputation as one cutthroat s.o.b.

"Cutthroat? Of course it's cutthroat," he growls. "It's cutthroat because I'm cutting the throat of everyone's business."

But now, as the chile season approaches its peak, he and other vendors are scrambling to meet their stiffest competition. And it's not coming from Federal Boulevard, either.

This spring, a nasty little bug named the beet leaf hopper hopped onto a chile plant some 620 miles south of Denver, took a bite and spread a nasty little virus called the "curly top." And faster than farmers could say "Raid!" chile plants throughout the Hatch Valley withered.

Then it got cold.

Then it got windy.

Then it got rainy.

Farmers woke up, surveyed their sickly, mottled and moldy plants and plowed them under. As quick as the leaf hopper itself, word spread north along the Rio Grande: This year's chile crop was going to be bad.

Really bad.

So bad that most farmers in Hatch would lose 50 to 75 percent of their yield. So bad that street prices would leap from $12 a sack last year to $30 in some areas. So bad that canneries such as Border Foods would have trouble mustering workers, since potential employees had assumed the meager harvest meant no work at all. So bad that thieves would slip into Hatch's fields, warehouses and loading docks to steal what good chile remained. So bad that the supply of authentic Hatch chile is expected to vanish by the end of September.

"It's the worst we've experienced in our generation," says Chris Franzoy, a third-generation Hatch chile farmer whose Young Guns company is among New Mexico's largest. "Everyone has been affected."

Everyone, he says, except the farmers in Mexico. Ever since the passage of NAFTA, trucks from Chihuahua have rumbled across the border and unloaded tons of chile produced at a fraction of what it costs their Yankee counterparts.

"Mexico has learned about our market and infiltrated the area," Franzoy says. "We've felt a lot of pressure from them. Their labor costs are two-thirds of ours, and their exports have been up. We just can't compete."

What's worse, Franzoy adds, a good portion of that Mexican chile (which is actually grown from New Mexican chile seeds) is being sold at premium prices and mislabeled as Hatch. The fraud is so bad, he says, that 25 Hatch chile farmers recently joined forces to protect their name and their product. They met with U.S. Senator Pete Domenici and drafted a list of possible remedies, such as patenting the Hatch name, slapping identification bands on gunnysacks, certifying fields and policing roadside stands.

"That's the only way the consumer will know what they're buying," Franzoy says. "We want to protect the name and reputation of Hatch chile. It's suffering and being abused, and people are losing sales because of it."

In Denver, in a parking lot at 38th Avenue and Brighton Boulevard, Lorenzo Garcia looks up at the sign for his produce stand.

"See that?" he says. "It used to say 'Hatch.' But I had to wipe it out. I had to paint it over. I had to put up '$15' instead. And it's killing me."

Because of the leaf hopper, the virus and the bad weather, Garcia's uncle, who supplies his stand with fresh pods, lost his entire chile crop in the Hatch Valley. Fortunately for Garcia, his uncle still had healthy chile fields near the village of Garfield, ten miles away from Hatch. But the problem is, Garcia can't call that chile Hatch. It's near-Hatch, but not technically Hatch. And because of that, his produce stand is hurting.

"Everyone wants to buy Hatch," he says. "Why? I have no idea. All I know is that if I had a sign that said Hatch, people would come here. And if I don't, they'll go to the place that says Hatch. Even if there really isn't Hatch there."

Garcia, who was born near Hatch and raised in El Paso and Albuquerque, opened his first chile stand in Denver seven years ago at Eighth Avenue and Kalamath. Back then, he saw vendors advertising what they called Hatch but what he knew was something else. So he announced his arrival on the scene by sewing his company's name onto the pocket of his gray-and-white pinstriped uniform: "Hatch Chile War."

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Harrison Fletcher

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