Illustration PULP

Colorado’s Chile Economy

Pueblo’s pepper is being shipped out, bringing people in and creating larger conversations across the state

Three years ago Pueblo launched a major goal: Make Pueblo chile a brand. Much of that effort has been selling the crop in other Colorado communities like Colorado Springs or Denver, but some of it has been in attracting visitors to Pueblo where the pepper is king.

Leaders say that aspiration has come a long ways since November 2015, and while it’s difficult to track whether the crop is bringing in visitors, the chatter around chile, at least, seems to be escalating.

Local economic and political leaders wanted chile connoisseurs to question whether the the pepper they were eating was regular ol’ hatch chile or something much more — Pueblo’s mirasol chile — when the branding campaign launched.

For many, that has meant seeking the chile out where it grows. For Pueblo, that means economic development in the form of agritourism.

“As you know, economic development fundamentally focuses on bringing new, outside money into the local economy (primary dollars),” Pueblo County Economic Development Director Chris Markuson said. “Companies that generate the majority of their revenues from outside the local economy are primary businesses, and serve as the economic engines for a community.”

The same principle is applied to other major industries in Pueblo, such as the steel produced at Evarez and the tortillas made at the Mission Foods plant. But more recently the idea that Pueblo as a destination is economic development has been catching on. City tax dollars typically reserved for job creation are helping fund an expansion of the convention center.

That idea can also be applied to chile, which in 2015 was expected to add an estimated $1.1 million to Pueblo’s economy each year.

“Agritourism is one way to bring dollars from other areas into the community. When tourists spend their dollars at local farms, they’re bringing primary dollars into our economy,” Markuson said. “The more this happens, the healthier our local economy is.”

And it’s relatively inexpensive, he added.

“Especially if additional experiences are combined in a tourist’s visit, we can maximize the economic impact,” Markuson said. “For example, if a family from Denver visits a farm to pick chile, then goes to a restaurant, stays overnight in a hotel, and rents a boat at the reservoir the following day, they’re spending money at a number of businesses. They’re also enjoying themselves, and are likely to return or recommend a Pueblo visit to their friends.”

Pueblo state Rep. Daneya Esgar knows this well. She’s earned the unofficial title “The Chile Lady” under the Gold Dome in Denver. If a lawmaker, lobbyist or staffer is after chile, she has the recommendations on where to get it.

“People (I know) from Denver have made it a point to come to Pueblo because of the notoriety it’s gaining,” she said. “They were excited about the Chile and Frijoles Festival but even more excited to head out to a farm…They were more interested in that, and it’s just been neat people reaching out wanting to know all these things.”

While that agritourism has been a goal of Pueblo’s, Markuson said farmers are still mostly selling their popular crop to locals.

“Our local farmers have predominantly sold chile almost exclusively to Pueblo residents,” he said. “The chile branding effort allows multiple farmers to market to outside markets under a common brand.”

In other words, Pueblo chile that finds its way to a grocery store in Colorado Springs or Denver may be from multiple farmers on Pueblo’s St. Charles Mesa, but they’re all using the same branding, much like Olathe Sweet Corn or Rocky Ford melons.

“A single brand also removes the desire or need for farmers to distinguish their farm from other farms in a state/regional/national marketplace, which can be extremely expensive,” Markeson said. “A great example of similar branding is Vidalia onions. There are hundreds of farmers that produce Vidalia onions in Georgia. However, as a consumer in Colorado, I really don’t know any Vidalia farmers. (But) if I go to the supermarket and see Vidalia onions, I know what I’m buying. My dollar eventually goes to the farmer who grew the onions, even though I may never know who she was.”

That larger brand has also lends itself to a bigger conversation about farming policy, water and issues facing Colorado residents living outside of the Denver metro region.

Earlier this year Esgar, who is the vice chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources Committee, led a group of fellow legislators, most from Denver, on a tour through southern Colorado farms to learn about conservation easements. Their final stop? Milberger Farms for lunch, where Pueblo chile is grown and served on the menu, not to mention available for purchase all year.

The larger picture — one of how farming can be a profitable and stable business — was something Markuson pointed out in 2015, too.

“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 told PULP then. “If farmers are not making money, their kids are not going to come back and work the land.”