(Photo from the state’s Tourism Department)
The state Agriculture Department extended a program that helps chile farmers and contractors pay their workers more per hour amid a labor shortage that threatens harvests of New Mexico’s signature crop.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham first announced a $5 million first program in August that chipped in taxpayer money to help recruit and retain seasonal chile farm laborers. The first-come, first-serve program will now pay wages for work done through Jan. 31, 2022 and farmers and contractors can apply for the funding as late as Feb. 28, 2022.
The state fund will pay up to $4.50 an hour to enhance laborer pay up to $19.50 an hour to process chile. The funding comes from the federal American Rescue Plan.
In August, the state estimated that it was experiencing a 45% drop in chile laborers, which amounted to about 1,350 workers.
As of this week, the state had spent around half the money on about 3,000 workers. A little more than $2.3 million remains.
Glen Duggins, president of the New Mexico Chile Association, told Source New Mexico that the program has been very helpful to farmers like him, but he thinks it could have been streamlined to better retain workers.
For example, he said, the program requires too much paperwork to be worth it for some employees who don’t work for very long or abruptly stop showing up to work. That undermines the point of the program, he said, and might explain why the state hasn’t yet spent all the money.
“The turnover is so high,” he said. “They come and go so fast on the farm that (the program) doesn’t work very well on the farm.”
Instead, Duggins said, it might work better to use the fund to pay farmers per ton of chile harvested and to give them the flexibility to pay their workers from that amount.
But he said he appreciates the program, especially as farmers harvest red chile this winter. He supplemented one employee’s wages this fall and intends to enroll at least three more this winter, he said.
“We’re grateful for it, and we’re using it for the red chile (harvest),” he said.
Farmers and labor contractors can apply for the program on this website.
New Mexico farmers produced nearly $52 million in green chile in 2020 from 8,500 acres, according to the United States Department of Agriculture statistics, up from $50 million in 2019.
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