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Hatch v. Pueblo chile debate highlights an opportunity for Southern Colorado’s spicy crop

Illustration PULP

Shane Milberger grows about 80 acres of Marisol peppers, better known across Colorado and the region as “Pueblo Chile,” each year. It’s a small amount compared to the more than 8,000 acres of Hatch Chile grown in New Mexico’s Hatch Valley each year. 

But the peppers local economic development leaders have branded as “specialty” because of their meatiness and unpredictable spiciness have garnered a fierce following, among them Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. He boasted the Southern Colorado crop on Facebook this week, prompting a back and forth with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about which state has the truly superior pepper.

On Saturday Polis wrote on Facebook:

 

Lujan Grisham shot back on Twitter:

Then, things really started heating up when Polis challenged the fellow Democrat in New Mexico to a taste challenge in Trinidad. There’s no word on whether that will happen yet, but the social media spat has rekindled the ultimate question: What kind of chile are you buying?

“There is room in this region for both chiles,” state Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, told PULP. “But Pueblo Chiles deserve to be recognized and promoted.”

She said Pueblo’s chile does tend to outperform Hatch in the kitchen. “There’s more to it than a stringy Hatch Chile. I truly believe there’s more to it.” 

But more than the dispute over flavor and pride — which seems to have no shortage on either side — Esgar said this is an opportunity to prove that Pueblo’s chile deserves a seat at the table along with Hatch.

“Pueblo Chiles are a better chile and are grown right here in Colorado. When Colorado restaurants and households begin to ask if the chile they are purchasing are Pueblo Chiles, then we’ve done the marketing we need to do,” Esgar said.

That question is one Pueblo officials have been wanting people to ask since the inception of the Pueblo Chile Grower Association in 2014.

Pueblo County Economic Development Director Chris Markuson told the PULP in 2015 that Pueblo Chile was to be branded as a “specialty” product because it is different than the Hatch Chile found further south.

“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.”

The goal of getting Pueblo Chile into places like Whole Foods, where it has been for a few years now, was to create a wholesale market in which Pueblo’s chile farmers work together instead of against each other.

“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.”

The idea behind Pueblo Chile was similar to Rocky Ford Melons or Olathe Sweetcorn.

For the last several seasons Pueblo has been asking chile consumers what they’re putting on their plates and to look for the certified Pueblo Chile branding and hoping it will have a lasting impact for the farmers and the region.

Esgar’s efforts to make that happen have also landed Pueblo Chile license plates on vehicles across Colorado. Her bill to introduce the license plate was the first specialty plate in the nation. New Mexico’s specialty chile license plate effort was vetoed to make way for a regular license plate option that featured the state’s Hatch Chiles.

The Pueblo Chile license plate costs drivers an extra $50. Through the end of August, the license plate comes with coupon for $5 off a bushel of Chile or a jar of Pueblo salsa.

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