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Mauro Farms' farm stand in Pueblo County, Colo. (PULP Colorado)

Weather, COVID-19 market disruptions concern Pueblo Chile Growers. Chile Fest to be re-imagined this year.

Over the past two years, Pueblo Chile growers only had to battle through back-to-back poor growing seasons. With COVID-19, growers have to contend with early market disruptions and employee safety concerns.

Dan Hobbs of Hobbs Family Farms in Pueblo County says their business has taken an early hit because buyers canceled their orders. He said his wholesale Pueblo chile customers have been unable to go through with their orders due to disruptions with their own businesses.

“Most of the impacts on us, I would say, have been a result of market disruption,” Hobbs said. “We lost one customer that was a distiller, and a second that was a chain of Mexican restaurants, and those were pretty significant.”

The Hobbs Family Farm does not intend to allow market disruptions to impact its business.

“We’re going to adapt and pivot into developing new products,” Hobbs said. “We invested in a dehydrator, and we plan to move into some shelf-stable, dehydrated Pueblo and Poblano chile products.”

Hobbs said that the farm is planning to try its hand in selling chile flakes, powders, and even some chile-garlic spice blends to complement their other crops.

“We also will be doing some ristras,” said Hobbs. Previously, ristras and other dehydrated products have been difficult for the Hobbs farm to make because of the “thick meat” of Pueblo chiles.

The farm is willing to venture into new territory, with the help of its new three-chamber dehydrator.

Other chile growers see poor weather as the real threat this early in the growing season.

“No, there’s not going to be any [COVID-19] impact,” said Carla Houghton of Mauro Farms, “if people want chile, they’re going to get their chile.”

Houghton is confident COVID-19 would not impact her farm’s chile growing and production.

“I anticipate having a fantastic year, as long as the weather permits it. That’s the biggest thing, the last two years the weather has not been the best for growing.”

For Houghton and many other Pueblo chile growers, the COVID-19 pandemic has had little effect on their annual production so far.

Chile growers across the region are keeping a close eye on COVID-19 health and safety precautions for their workers, despite the growing season being unaffected.

“So far we have not had a huge impact,” said Dominic DiSanti of DiSanti Farms. “None of our supplies have been held up, and so far, we have just had to take precautions and offer training opportunities to make sure our employees stay safe.”

With months to go until the Pueblo Chile & Frijoles Festival, which sees hundreds of thousands of attendees, tough decisions are on the horizon to keep the festival alive in 2020. However, the organizers are following the Colorado State Fair’s lead and working to “re-imagine” the festival this year.

“We are in the process of assessing what modifications of the festival make sense while still maintaining our mission and adhering to public health and safety measures,” said Donielle Kitzman, executive director of the Pueblo Chile Growers Association.

A decision on the festival would be made in mid-July, according to Kitzman.