By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Hatch Chili Festival 2017
Hatch Chili Festival 2017

Hatch, New Mexico – While driving across southern New Mexico, you could easily believe you were traversing the moon. Despite Interstate 25 that bisects the state from north to south, the desert landscape appears mostly untouched and unpeopled. Some gas stations still maintain pumps with antiquated rotating meters. For long stretches, other cars are few and far between.

Yet pull slightly off of the freeway into Hatch during early September, and clearly much is happening in the town. In particular, a chile festival that has drawn increasing crowds through the years and attention from media outlets domestic and foreign, such as BBC News.

It may seem that little could grow in this arid terrain, but the chile pepper has put Hatch on the map.

The Hatch Chile Festival is but one way this town of less than 2,000 has succeeded remarkably well in expanding its rural economy. Located in Dona Ana County, 37 miles north of Las Cruces, Hatch has anointed itself the Chile Capital of the World. And with the help of RCAC’s Building Rural Economies (BRE) program, the town is aiming to help local entrepreneurs develop chile- or tourism-based businesses within the community.

Lisa Neal
Lisa Neal (a native of Hatch, Hatch Public Library director, Hatch Valley economic coordinator and president of the Hatch Chamber of Commerce) wearing a necklace made by a local artisan.

“Over the years, we saw that we could increase production, corner the market and brand the Hatch chile,” says Lisa Neal, who is both the Hatch Public Library director and the Hatch Valley economic coordinator. A native of Hatch—she grew up on her parents’ onion farm there—she is an enthusiastic community booster. “We’ve gradually let the world know about our chile, and we’ve been successful.”

The Hatch Valley has a history of agricultural success. The publication Rio Grande Farmer reported on Dec. 13, 1923, that “alfalfa, wheat barley, oats, corn, milo … all give excellent yields.” Cotton grew particularly well, as did cabbage, onions, sweet potatoes, spinach, melons, beans, apples, grapes, peaches and pears. Today’s signature Hatch chile, “did not push cotton out the door, only to the side,” local historians Cindy Carpenter and Sherry Fletcher note in their book Images of America.

Nonetheless, water and rainfall have always been unpredictable and scarce in southern New Mexico. Developing the thriving chile industry in Hatch is testament to the town’s innovative spirit and resilience.

And yet, Neal and others recognized that while the festival attracted visitors to their town, there had to be a way to harness that interest throughout the year and to expand the local economy.

In March, Neal met with eight other Hatch Valley residents and RCAC rural development specialist Amity Rembold to discuss plans for a farmers and artisans market, or mercado. First they established a farmers’ market board and planned to develop its bylaws. They agreed to advertise in local newspapers for more board members, and to draft policies and procedures for the market. They settled on a location, date and time for the market, and agreed to discuss vendor rents and who could eventually manage the market.

The meeting grew out of RCAC’s BRE workshops held in Hatch late last year and into January. The BRE initiative offers rural community leaders comprehensive training to recognize and develop local assets and talent. RCAC staff, among them Rembold, focus on supporting local residents as they network and plan toward increasing regional entrepreneurship and jobs and seed investments.

Chili festival parade float
RCAC staff Elizabeth Bernal and Blanca Surgeon riding in the Hatch Chili Festival parade representing the community’s Recharge Our Community Economy BRE group.

Blanca Surgeon, an RCAC rural development specialist and BRE training coordinator, led the workshops in Hatch. Participants acknowledged that while the annual chile festival draws more than 20,000 visitors to Hatch, an annual event is not enough to grow and sustain the local economy for years to come. Out of that came the idea to develop the mercado, or farmers market, to showcase not only Hatch’s signature chiles, but everything else grown in the area, and locally designed and produced arts and crafts.

The workshop participants focused on the question, “What is there to do in Hatch?” Surgeon says.

“We also answered the questions, who are the people who have a need for it,” she continues. “How are they solving the problem currently? How is this a better or unique solution? Would people be willing to pay for it, and how would people know about this solution? To that effect, we decided to get out in the community and start asking people questions and getting community input on the idea of having a Farmers and Artisans Mercado in the Hatch Valley.”

For Neal, the workshops motivated her to think more clearly about her hometown’s economy in ways she hadn’t considered before and to consider other local business ventures.

Hatch Chili Wreath
Chili wreath/ristra created by a local artisan and displayed in local shops and the Hatch Chili Festival.

“Blanca was really well-organized,” Neal recalls. “She helped us get our goals together and to figure out exactly what we wanted to do for Hatch. We said that we would like to advertise that we’re the chile capital of the world not just in September but for 365 days of the year.”

“Through the BRE program,” she said, “I’m better prepared to help others determine if their business ideas would work. It’s been extremely beneficial.”

Since then, plans for the mercado have become more concrete. With Rembold’s ongoing support, the group reconvened in early April to prepare a formal proposal for the Hatch Board of Supervisors.

“The mercado will offer a year round opportunity for people to experience the chile capital of the world,” Rembold notes. “It offers local artisans the opportunity to sell their product all year.”

Rembold has worked with several rural communities during the years to find solutions to their economic challenges. She says that in Hatch, the BRE participants were notably ready and eager to do the work.

“We worked on a value chain,” she recalls, “and they were just really ready to jump in with both feet.”

Starting in July and continuing until October, a trial mercado with 25 vendor spaces will test what consumers prefer for their local produce. The mercado organizers will be using $8,500 in funding from the Village of Hatch Board of Supervisors; vendor rental fees will support the market, which will be held Saturdays from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.

“They should just about break even,” Rembold said. “The goal is to show that the permanent Mercado has the ability to carry itself. We’re optimistic that it will. ”