The first of a three-year plan to brand and push Pueblo chile into new markets is deemed a success.

Is that chile you’re eating really a Pueblo chile?

Pueblo County Economic Development Director Chris Markuson wants locals, and eventually consumers across the country, to ask that question as the Pueblo chile grows in popularity.

The question will hopefully be the result to a three-year strategic plan to build the brand around the Pueblo chile.

This summer marked the first growing season of  the plan, which was created through a partnership between the county and a group of farmers in Pueblo to increase profitability of Pueblo’s most notable crop.

So far, local growers say it’s working.

Local chile growers Dominic DiSanti and Shane Milberger said they noticed more foot traffic in their stores throughout the growing season. Both are members of the newly-formed Pueblo Chile Grower Association, which has seven board members and representation from 18 Pueblo County farms.

More foot traffic is a win for the growers and a win for the city and county. The growers say a good number of visitors were not from Pueblo — which means they likely stopped to fill up their gas tank and eat lunch or dinner providing the city with sales tax money.

Part of the success of the plan is agritourism, Markuson said.

Of the 36,000 ranches and farms in Colorado 864 reported tourism income last year, according to the Colorado Tourism Office Heritage and Agritourism Program.

Those providing agritourism reported around $33,000 to $48,000 additional income, the office reported.

Shane Milberger

Several of the chile farmers on Pueblo’s Mesa come from a long line of growers. Shane Milberger, however, is a first generation chile grower, but his son plans to continue the family business. Photo by Kara Mason

The other part of the plan to take the Pueblo chile nationally is to get it onto as many plates as possible. That can mean wholesale or through products such as salsa or pre-packaged frozen chile.  

The goal is to make the Pueblo chile a specialty product unlike the competition, New Mexico’s famous Hatch Chile, which has heavily saturated the chile market across the U.S., according to Markuson.

“The strong asset of the Pueblo chile is that it’s more flavorful,” Markuson said. “It’s hotter, and meatier, and thicker and is much better for roasting. You just can’t debate that.”

It makes for a great high-quality option when it comes to chile, Markuson added. Highlighting the strengths of the chile has been a major push in the marketing campaign.

When the county and the growers initially talked about marketing they laid out the strengths and the weaknesses.

“To some, the perceived weakness of the Pueblo chile is the variable. The temperature, the heat is a little bit more variable,” Markuson said. “We said, no, that’s the strength. That’s fantastic. We use language like, ‘Oh, I got a hot one!’”

The group of growers already knew what makes the Pueblo chile great, DiSanti said citing the same strengths as Markuson. It was just a matter of putting that all into a marketing plan.

“The chile growers have been working against each other and with each for a long time,” said Markuson “We’ve got seven generations of history among all of the growers on the Mesa.”

This isn’t the first time the growers have teamed up to create an association, DiSanti said, but this time they have a marketing order and a plan in place to expand business among the growers.

“There’s a lot of strategy behind what we’re trying to get done. This whole thing is about water. It’s about tying water to the land and how we make farming profitable,” Markuson said. “If farmers are not making money, their kids are not going to come back and work the land.”

Milberger, a first generation grower, and DiSanti, a fifth generation grower, agreed. Milberger said his son will eventually take over the farm and continue the Pueblo chile tradition.

To grow the success of the Pueblo chile Markuson and the Pueblo County Economic Office have helped create a three-year plan with “three major bands:” Developing a wholesale market, introducing Pueblo chile to markets beyond Pueblo and expand the local market as much as possible.

A little bit of everything has happened already, though.

Year one was all about forming the association and really developing the brand, DiSanti said. But they’ve made contacts with a few big retailers, and media coverage of Pueblo chile making its way into Whole Foods hasn’t hurt. Milberger has been selling his chiles to the natural food chain for eight years. Pueblo chile can also be found in Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Safeway and Kroger stores as some growers have wholesale agreements with those retailers.

“There’s a lot of strategy behind what we’re trying to get done. This whole thing is about water. It’s about tying water to the land and how we make farming profitable.” – Chris Markuson, Pueblo County Economic Development Director

Earlier this year they awarded a $143,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture to trademark the Pueblo chile. Everybody agreed that is what really got the ball rolling.

The idea of trademarking largely came from an effort the state undertook with a group of Rocky Ford melon growers after a massive listeria outbreak that damaged the reputation of Rocky Ford growers even though the tainted melons were nowhere near Rocky Ford. The outbreak happened at Jenson Farms, located in Granada (east of Lamar).

Milberger saw the success of trademarking with the Rocky Ford growers and pushed the idea for quite some time, but he didn’t think it would be fair for him to trademark his own chile when a bunch of Pueblo growers were working the same crop.

“The cantaloupe industry was in a tough spot. It was really like how do we keep this industry alive,” said Tom Lipetzky, director of marketing programs & strategic initiatives for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Lipetzky played a major part in trademarking of Rocky Ford melons after the outbreak.

The branding was all about creating a tie between the consumer and the product, much like the Pueblo Chile Grower Association is attempting by marketing the Pueblo chile as a high-quality product, Lipetzky said.

“We thought ‘hey, if they can have this kind of success in a crisis, why can’t we do this and be successful, too?’” Milberger said. “At the time I could buy a case of California cantaloupe for around $6 per case. Rocky Ford (cantaloupe) I couldn’t get for less than $18 per case.”

Much of the success of branding through a trademark is putting a face to the product, Lipetzky said.

DiSanti added that “the push for local produce is trumping organic at this point.”

The economic impact of Pueblo chile is expected to be around $1.1 million by the end of 2015 and grow just more than 9 percent each year, Markuson said.

After the three-year strategic plan, the hope is that there will be enough brand recognition to keep people across the country hungry for Pueblo chile and provide local farmers and the county with more business.