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Seasonal workers for DiTomaso Farms stack bushels of freshly harvested Pueblo chiles on the back of a truck. Theses particular chiles will be headed to the annual Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival in downtown Pueblo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s mid-September and many chile roasters stand clean and silent at farm stands east of Pueblo. The smell of roasting chiles wafts only occasionally through the air. Workers are idle. 

The first day of picking at Mauro Farms and Bakery brought in just 70 bushels instead of the usual 500.

The tired, grim-faced farmers are praying for things to dry out from recent heavy rains, for the days to warm back up and for the first frost to hold off until the chiles still on the vine have time to mature.

“I haven’t slept good all summer because I’m worried about the harvest,” said Bryan Crites of Crites Produce in Avondale. “I’ve never made it to mid-September without picking chile.

“I usually would’ve picked 20-25 acres by now.”

Is there a bright spot?

“That the year is almost over,” he said. “We all just want it to be over so we can move on to next year.”

But with an estimated 150,000 people about to descend on downtown this weekend for the 29th annual Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival, farmers and festival organizers are quick to add that there will be plenty of chiles to roast and bag up for customers. 

“We’ll be taking 1,000 bushels to the festival,” said Dalton Milberger, a second-generation farmer and president of the Pueblo Chile Growers Association. “That’s typically about what we take.”

The farm stands will be ready too, as festival weekend is usually the busiest for chile sales with upwards of 50,000 bushels sold, said Donielle Kitzman, vice president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. 

Still, with a smaller crop, who’s not getting Pueblo chiles? Many wholesale customers, roadside sellers who take the chiles to other parts of the state and some out-of-state customers who rely on direct shipments.

Carla Houghton of Mauro Farms and Bakery said her operation has had to make adjustments due to the lower yields in this year’s crop of Pueblo chiles, but is well positioned to make it through the season. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Other farmers echoed Carla Houghton’s thoughts about taking care of loyal customers at the farm stands and those who buy at the festival. Houghton, who runs the Mauro Farms and Bakery with her brother Steve Mauro, has a waiting list for shipping chiles if they have enough and can continue to harvest well into October.

“We’re taking care of people who come here to buy chile first,” Houghton said. “People just need to be patient this year. We’re trying our hardest to get what they want.”

The Pueblo chile

This time of year, what they want is the Pueblo Green Chile, which has become a cultural symbol of the community and one of those “Colorado Proud” products touted by the state Department of Agriculture. 

Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Union Avenue in Historic Downtown Pueblo

Schedule: 3 p.m.-midnight Friday; 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Highlights: Pueblo chile roasting, produce stands, entertainment, food vendors, hot air balloons, jalapeno-eating contest and Chihuahua parade.

The department tracks how aware Coloradans are of the state’s signature products, and the number of survey respondents who purchased Pueblo Chiles rose from 34% in 2016 to 61% in 2022, according to the Public Perceptions and Attitudes About Colorado Agriculture Survey.

Palisade peaches were the most recognized product, with 90% of respondents saying they had heard of and purchased them. That was followed by Rocky Ford melons at 76%, Olathe sweet corn and Colorado beer tied at 75%, Colorado beef at 73% and Colorado dairy products at 72%. 

The love affair with the Pueblo Chile started in the 1990s, although the Mira Sol (looking at the sun) chile had been grown in the region for a century. The chile grows pointing upward to the sun rather than hanging down.

Its development into today’s crop started when Mike Bartolo, who spent 30 years with the CSU Extension Service in Rocky Ford and has his own farm as well, began experimenting with a bag of heirloom seed his dad discovered in a barn a few years after his brother, Harry Mosco, died in 1988. 

Bartolo, a Pueblo native, decided to plant a couple rows of his Uncle Harry’s seeds to see what happened.

“That was the starting line for me,” he said. “It was an unusual, different plant and I began taking selections and came up with a new strain of that Mira Sol that produces a bigger, thicker-walled fruit.”

Farmers make “selections” by tying a ribbon around a plant that produced the best fruit and saving the seed. After a few years of doing that with his chile plants, Bartolo had a heartier chile and he began to share the seed with other farmers.

A pallet ready for Pueblo chiles sits empty at Musso Farms in Vineland. It’s been a tough year for chile farmers in Pueblo County. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Carl Musso was among the first to get them, and today a small display of the heirloom seed and a plaque with a bit of the story is proudly displayed in the “Chile Room” at the Musso Farms Market, on Hillside Road just off 36th Lane.

“The heirloom was a smaller and thin-walled fruit, so not as amenable to roasting. I named the new strain Mosco after my uncle,” Bartolo said. “I had no vision for chiles when I started, I just fell into this thing serendipitously.”

“This thing” led to Bartolo being widely recognized as the chile expert — the guy farmers and reporters turn to when they want to learn more about chiles. 

Another Mira Sol strain, the Giadone of Pueblo Hot chile, was developed and named after Pete Giadone, one of the founders of the Pueblo chile fest. It clocks a Scoville reading of 11,000 to 12,000, compared with the 5,000 to 6,000 Scoville units for the Mosco, Bartolo said.

Since 2002, the Mosco variety of the Mira Sol has been in full production in Pueblo County and is the predominant Pueblo Green Chile.

Meanwhile, the Pueblo Chile Festival was launched as a way to bring recognition to the growing number of farms growing chile. The first event, in 1994, was small, attracting between 3,000 and 5,000 people over two days, according to the Pueblo Chile Grower’s Association website. There was one food vender, one chile farmer and roaster and a few artisans.

The event grew and the Pueblo Green Chile became part of beloved state produce. Later would come the “chile wars” with New Mexico over which state produces the best chiles. 

The Pueblo chile is also called “Mira Sol” because the tip of the chile points up toward the sun.(Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That war spilled over into a competition to develop chile license plates, with both states approving them in 2017, although New Mexico was first. It issues a regular plate, one of the three New Mexican drivers can choose from, proclaiming New Mexico as the “Chile capital of the world.”

Colorado’s specialty plate features the Pueblo chile and the Pueblo Chile Growers Association.

In Pueblo County, other endeavors, including livestock and feed crops such as hay, corn and alfalfa, and pumpkins and pinto beans have a larger economic impact. But it is the 800 acres of chiles — that usually produce about 640,000 bushels of chiles — that draws in the crowds. 

Bad year for farming

The year was challenging for farmers pretty much all summer in southeastern Colorado. It started with cool, wet weather as planting started in May and that lingered well into June. A raft of severe hailstorms starting in May pummeled the fields. 

Then came the hot dry weather of July and August, followed by a sudden rainy cool spell in early September that again slowed the maturation.

Pueblo County wasn’t alone in facing weather challenges. Agriculture in much of the state was beset by the sudden shift from drought to cool, wet weather followed by record-breaking heat. From coast to coast, American farmers faced severe weather that wiped out or stressed crops.

Olathe corn farmers had a pest problem, and grain farmers on the Eastern Plains lost entire crops to hail.

“That’s farming,” was a common refrain from Pueblo County chile farmers. Weather is always a variable. But most also admitted they’d never seen anything quite like the summer of 2023.

“The chiles had so many stresses,” Crites said, as he sat in his office on his Avondale farm. “The timing of the hailstorms was such that right about the time the plants would heal from one we’d have another.”

Crites was hit four times, including a devastating May 20 storm that dropped two inches of rain and piles of hail that remained in the fields for two to three days, he said, pulling up a video on his cellphone. Tiny plants floated in the icy muck.

Houghton said her brother, Steve Mauro, plants seed in the fields so the plants are typically a couple weeks later than on other farms and they developed well. But there still were enough stresses to slow and reduce the yield and produce smaller chiles.

Vic Mauro of Vic Mauro Produce has taken a philosophical approach to this year’s chile crop in Pueblo County. “The chiles are good,” he said, “the heat is there, but they’re just smaller.” (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Her cousin, Vic Mauro of Vic Mauro Produce, agreed and noted that “we didn’t need this week of being cool” in early September as the chiles continued to mature.

“They’re good — the heat is good, the flavor is there, but they’re smaller,” he said.

Bartolo said the cool spring delayed the setting of the chile pods, and the overall yield is down. Usually, the 17,000 to 20,000 plants per acre of chile produce up to 800 bushels (20,000 pounds) of chiles — among the highest yield per acre of the crops. It depends on the variety of chile – Pueblo farmers generally plant a dozen or so varieties, including jalapeños, Big Jim and Anaheim. 

Most farmers hesitated to estimate this year’s crop as they held out hope for a few weeks of sunshine and a late October frost so they can continue the harvest. Crites, who is primarily a wholesale producer, said the crop could be as low as 20% of normal.

“I’m not hoping, I’m praying for a late frost and dry fall,” said Chris Thompson of DiTomaso Farms.

Chris Thompson of DiTomaso Farms said he had to work twice as hard this year to bring in his crop of chiles. “It is what it is,” he said. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Along with the hail, a big issue this year was the wet spring. The transplanted seedlings grown in greenhouses tend to develop shallow roots when it’s wet, said McCall Knecht, the District 5 representative for the Colorado Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers program. Knecht and her husband have a small chile farm in Vineland.

When it got hot and dried out, the plants struggled because their roots hadn’t developed deeply enough, she said. Plants grown directly from seed in the field tend to do better in those conditions, but she estimates that 60% of the Pueblo chile crop is grown from seedlings started in a greenhouse.

Because of the threat of hail, most farmers have noncontiguous fields — often a couple of miles apart — to reduce the chance of all plants getting hit, Knecht said.

This year, she said, was a reminder of all the lessons farmers have learned: “Diversification is super important, all your crops should not be contiguous, plant transplants and seeds, plant varieties of crops — other vegetables.”

Most farmers have crop insurance to help cover losses, but it doesn’t quite make up the difference, Knecht said. Plus, what farmers really want is to bring in a good harvest, and a year like this one takes its toll on mental health as well.

“Farming is hard,” she said. “Farming is tough, but we also love it.”

Derick Domenico roasts a bushel of Pueblo chiles at DiTomaso Farms market in Vineland. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Give them grace

Walking into one of the farm markets east of Pueblo, the casual observers wouldn’t know it was a tough year. Squash, pumpkins and melons are piled high. Boxes of tomatoes await the canners, bushels of chiles and peppers line the shelves.

“We have something to offer every day,” said Vic Mauro, as he stacked boxes of tomatoes at his stand along Business U.S. 50 at 35th Lane. “But nothing has been normal this year.”

Some of the farms have diversified in other ways, producing products such as salsas, pasta, dried chili powders and herbs. Mauro Farms and Bakery added its bakery in 1986 and ships potica, pizzelles and cookies all over the United States.

Musso Farm has numerous local partnerships, including one with Westcliffe Meats to produce chile sausage and bacon, said Chris Garcia, a long-time family friend and crew member at the farm. It has its own processing plant for some things, and contracts with other companies to produce things such as the popular Musso Pueblo Green Chile Queso.

Musso Farms has taken the Pueblo chile to heights unimagined 20 years ago. They manufacture a number of Pueblo chile-based products, like their Pueblo Chile Queso. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This year, there’s a new Pueblo Chile ranch dressing on the shelves.

They also have a craft chile garden with about a hundred varieties of some of the hottest peppers, some of which go into hot sauces made by Pex Peppers in Pueblo. 

But mostly, “we’re a traditional farmers market that offers what’s seasonally available,” Garcia said. 

In the fall, that includes tractor rides to the pumpkin patches on Fridays and Saturdays, a pumpkin decorating event and a harvest festival with music and food. The farm does not participate in the chile fest downtown, although the family wing that operates Musso’s Restaurant does roast chiles at the fest. (One farm is Musso, the other is Musso’s, by family agreement.)

The two Mauro farms also don’t roast at the festival as they are too busy at their own farm stands, they said.

Milberger said three farms will operate seven stands at the festival — the usual number — and should have plenty of chiles for festivalgoers.

The festival has been a great way to “spread the word about Pueblo chiles,” he said, and even the farmers who don’t attend agree it has benefited them.

Some, such as Crites, sell their chiles to others who roast them at the festival. Despite his overall reduced harvest, he said last week that his 24-acre patch dedicated to the Pueblo chile was “looking good.”

The heat or spiciness of a Pueblo chile comes from the chile’s narrow yellow veins. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s a great PR and branding opportunity for Pueblo,” Kitzman with the chamber of commerce said of the festival. “We hear reports about it from all over the world. Families that used to live here come back for Chile Festival.

“It speaks to Pueblo’s culture and community more than many other events.”

She said the chamber also encourages visitors to stop by the farm stands.

“We’re really promoting people to visit farm stands to get their chiles, to reiterate their support to the local farmer,” she said. “They can see all the farm fresh options that Pueblo County has and support the other crops. 

“And give them grace — we can’t do anything about the weather.”

The farmers who man roasters and produce stands at the festival enjoy the event, even if it comes at a time when they are working 14-hour (or more) days.

“The festival is a good part of our business,” said Chris Thompson, son-in-law of Gary DiTomaso and a fifth-generation farmer at DiTomaso Farms. “We enjoy going down there and selling chiles and produce.

“The chiles are the same. We just had to work a lot harder to get it harvested.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.