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The Red-or-Greening of New Mexico

100 years ago, horticulturalist Fabian Garcia planted the seeds for New Mexico's $400 million chile-pepper industry.

By David A. Fryxell

Next autumn, when the smoky tang of roasting chiles perfumes the air and freshly harvested New Mexico peppers pile in supermarkets and roadside stands like summer in a bag, pause a moment to say a silent thanks to Fabian Garcia. Without Garcia, a pioneering horticulturalist and the first director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at what's now New Mexico State University, the official state question might not be "Red or green?" Nor would we have the appropriately seasonal response of "Christmas," meaning both.

Fabian Garcia, "the father of the Mexican
food industry." (NMSU)

One hundred years ago, in 1907, Garcia began the chile-breeding work that would ultimately lead to the release, in 1921, of New Mexico No. 9 — the first standardized variety of the now-familiar New Mexico chile pepper. By creating a pod that growers as well as consumers could depend on in terms of size as well as "heat," Garcia made possible mass cultivation of "red or green" chile peppers and opened the door to the chile-processing and -canning industry. Today, more than 40,000 acres of New Mexico chiles — the further-hybridized descendants of New Mexico No. 9 — are under cultivation not only here but also in California, Arizona and Texas. About 16,000 of those acres are in New Mexico, producing more than 28 tons of red and green, mild and hot peppers.

Dr. Paul Bosland, professor of agronomy and horticulture and the founder and director of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute, sounds a bit chagrined at having overlooked the 2007 centennial of his famous predecessor's hybridization work. "I'm kicking myself," says the scientist variously known as "Dr Pepper" and "Chile Man." "We could have had a big celebration. This being the land of ma¤ana, I guess we'd better start planning now for the centennial of the official release, in 2021."

Bosland shouldn't kick himself too hard. There's actually considerable confusion over the timing of Garcia's milestone accomplishment, even at NMSU. A Web page for potential transfer students listing 10 reasons to switch to NMSU, since taken offline, counted down to reason number one — "We love chile!" — and said Garcia released New Mexico No. 9 in 1907. A 2004 "Chile Pepper Primer" published in the Albuquerque weekly Alibi, citing the Chile Pepper Institute, reported, "In 1907 Fabian Garcia was finally able to release his first standardized New Mexican pod type. . . the granddaddy of all future New Mexico pod types." A "Pepper Profile" by renowned chile author and aficionado Dave DeWitt, online at Fiery-Foods.com, sets 1907 as the start date but pegs the official release as 1917.

But Bosland, who today in effect sits in Fabian Garcia's chair, sets the record straight, centennial-planning-wise: "Fabian began his chile breeding work in 1907 and officially released the New Mexico No. 9 in 1921. He actually began studying the growing of chiles as soon as he started his career at NMSU in 1894, but the breeding did not start until 1907. At least that is what I deduce from his writings."

There's no question, however, about the significance of Garcia's accomplishment in laying the groundwork for New Mexico's $400 million chile-pepper industry. As DeWitt, who co-wrote Peppers of the World with Bosland, explains in his "Pepper Profile": "The earliest cultivated chiles in New Mexico were smaller than those of today; indeed, they were (and still are, in some cases) considered a spice. But as the land races [varieties] developed and the size of the pods increased, the food value of chiles became evident. There was just one problem — the bewildering sizes and shapes of the chile peppers made it very difficult for farmers to determine which variety of chile they were growing from year to year. And there was no way to tell how large the pods might be, or how hot. The demand for chiles was increasing as the population of the state did, so it was time for modern horticulture to take over."

Bosland picks up from there: "When consumers eat a chile pepper, obviously they don't like to be scared. Consumers want to know what they're going to get. Producers, too, though there's some difference in heat level from year to year, like to have a dependable crop. The growers could sell more product, and it began the whole chile-processing industry. That brought about the vertical integration of the state's chile agriculture; it wasn't just fresh produce any more."

Had an Apache raid in the Mimbres Valley gone slightly differently back in 1880, however, the New Mexico chile pepper might not be the agricultural, economic and culinary powerhouse that it is today. According to an essay by Nena Singleton accompanying an online exhibit about Fabian Garcia sponsored by the NMSU Library's Rio Grande Historical Collection, which houses Garcia's papers, the great horticulturalist had a close call back then at the age of nine.

Born Jan. 20, 1871, in Chihuahua, Mexico, Garcia was orphaned young and brought to the US at age two by his grandmother, Do¤a Jacoba. She found domestic work in San Lorenzo, with the Thompson family. Near there, while quail hunting with a friend in the Mimbres Valley, young Fabian Garcia ran smack into a band of renegade Apaches — not an unusual occurrence in those days. Happily for chile lovers, the Apaches opted to attack a nearby ranch instead of the settlers in San Lorenzo.

But it was a close call that Garcia never forgot. Years later, he wrote, "In those days people lived in terror of the Indian raids." After he and his friend, Juan, encountered the Apaches, "I being worse scared and not having the gun to carry, outran Juan by quite a distance. After a two-mile run and without ever turning back to see if the Apaches were pursuing us, we reached the town and gave the alarm. Immediately the men in the neighborhood got together and prepared. . . for an attack by the Apaches, a thing they were used to.... Fortunately for the community, the Old Chief changed his mind and divided his [illegible word] towards a nearby ranch. But unfortunately for the occupants of the ranch at sunrise. . . a favorite time of attack. . . the Apaches annihilated every human being at the place. Such experiences were common in this part of the country 30 years ago."

From San Lorenzo, Garcia and his grandmother moved to the boomtown of Georgetown, where she found domestic work with an R.J. White and his family. In that now-vanished mining community, young Fabian Garcia made his first mark, as "the champion marble player of the vicinity."

Moving farther afield, in 1885 the boy and his grandmother went to a 5,000-acre spread south of Old Mesilla, where she took a position in the household of Thomas Casad. Prominent pioneers and owners of the vast Santo Thomas Spanish Land Grant, the Casads "treated Fabian as their own," according to Singleton. They provided a tutor and then sent their servant's grandson to college.

At New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (NMCA & MA), the forerunner of today's NMSU, Garcia played on the college's first football team and was president of the Colombian Literary Society. He earned his undergraduate degree in 1894 as part of the school's first graduating class.

After a year of special graduate work at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, Garcia returned to the Mesilla Valley and the NMCA & MA campus. He served as an assistant professor and earned his Master of Science degree. In 1904, Garcia became a professor of horticulture at NMCA & MA, a position he would hold until 1945.

For many years, Garcia was the college's only faculty member of Mexican heritage, which came in handy in his agricultural work. "He worked particularly well with Mexican farmers," Singleton notes. "However, he sometimes faced prejudice during his constant travels throughout the state. One innkeeper is said to have not admitted Garcia for having a Spanish name."

Nonetheless, Garcia continued moving up in the world. In 1907 he married the daughter of one of the area's most prominent families, Julieta Amador. Together they had one child, of whom all that is known is Garcia's entry on a 1942 Who's Who in America biographical form, under "children": "A boy but he died." Julieta herself would die only 13 years into their marriage, in 1920; Garcia never remarried.

The year of his marriage, 1907, was also of course the beginning of Garcia's quest to hybridize a more standard New Mexico chile pod. Native to South America, various chile peppers had been grown in New Mexico for centuries; one account credits Don Juan de O¤ate, who led the colonization push north from El Paso, with bringing chiles as well as Spanish rule from Mexico. DeWitt writes, "It is likely that many different varieties were cultivated, including early forms of jalape¤os, serranos, anchos and pasillas. But one variety that adapted particularly well to New Mexico was a long green chile that turned red in the fall."

The modern version of that variety is known to most non-New Mexicans as an "Anaheim" chile, after the city in California. But the Anaheim is really just a transplanted New Mexico pepper: In 1896, the sheriff of Ventura County, Calif., Emilio Ortega — whose last name today adorns an empire of Mexican-food products — brought chile seeds home with him from a trip to southern New Mexico. The plants flourished in the California climate and lost their New Mexican identity in the popular mind, along with much of their heat on the palate.

Meanwhile, back in New Mexico, people had been cultivating varieties of "Anaheim" chiles for centuries. Several distinct varieties developed, such as Chimayo and Espa¤ola, adapted to specific growing conditions in northern New Mexico. These varieties, DeWitt notes, "are still planted today in the same fields they were grown in centuries ago; they constitute a small but distinct part of the tons of pods produced each year in New Mexico."

These distinctively New Mexican chile peppers were popular but not suited for mass production. "Before, people grew chile in their backyards," Bosland continues. "They might have been shorter, northern Chimayo types or other shorter, squatter varieties."

Enter Fabian Garcia. Bosland explains, "He took three chiles to make the New Mexico pod type — Chile Negro, which is sort of black; Chile Colorado, which is red and found in northern New Mexico, like the Chimayo chile; and Chile Pasilla, which is dark brown. The Pasilla is long, like a pencil, so he took some of the shape from that.

"He selected for the red coloring of the Colorado chile," Bosland goes on, "which was a really good decision. It allowed growers to also go into the red-chile industry. If the New Mexico chile had ripened to brown or black, it couldn't have been used for paprika."

Today, although chile grown for paprika represents a small proportion of the state's total production by weight, it's second only to "long mild" green chiles in total dollar value of the annual crop. Hybrids specialized for their red color have largely replaced the original New Mexico No. 9, but the paprika-pepper industry launched by Garcia's smart choice accounted for nearly $14 million in chile production in 2005.

"A hundred years later," Bosland muses about Garcia's impact, "we're saying, 'Gosh, what a smart guy.'"

Breeding for the best of his three original varieties and seeking a more predictable pod size and level of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chiles their fire, Garcia ultimately developed the humbly labeled "No. 9." Subsequent hybrids have built on his work and overtaken the No. 9 in popularity for growers and their customers, but we would still recognize Garcia's original creation as a "New Mexican chile" — whether roasted green for eating or ripened red and dried for sauces or ristras.

Chile connoisseur DeWitt describes them: "New Mexican chiles are pod types of the annuum species. The plant has mostly a compact habit with an intermediate number of stems, and grows between 20 and 30 inches high. The leaves are ovate, medium green, fairly smooth, and about three inches long and two inches wide. The flower corollas are white with no spots. The pods are pendant, elongate, bluntly pointed, and measure between two and 12 inches. They are dark green, maturing to various shades of red. Some ornamentals are yellow or brown. Their heat ranges from quite mild to medium, between 500 and 2,500 Scoville Units. . . . The growing period is about 80 days, and each plant produces between 10 and 20 pods, depending on variety and cultural techniques."

Besides his landmark work with New Mexico chile pods, Fabian Garcia also experimented with the precursor to the hot Sandia chile, Acala cotton, sugar beets and Yellow and White Grano onions. Sent to the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Crystal City, Texas, the Grano variety helped spark today's $50 million Texas sweet-onion industry. Garcia pioneered the raised-bed method of growing peppers to reduce chile wilt, a root rot caused by a water mold. About 1913, he was involved in planting some of the original pecan trees in the Mesilla Valley — 35 varieties, some of the trees still alive nearly a century later. Today, New Mexico has more than 30,000 acres planted with pecan trees.

In 1914, Garcia became the first director of the state Agricultural Experiment Station, headquartered at NMCA & MA. He had already helped buy the land where NMSU's horticulture farm now sits, according to Singleton, personally signing the note for the loan. Singleton quotes Dr. Joseph V. Enzie, a colleague of Garcia's, who recalled, "Then, to pay it off, he planted watermelons without water for irrigation. For water, he added hand-operated 'pitcher' pumps to bring in the harvest."

A caption accompanying a photo in the online gallery about Garcia gives another example of his determination: "In a story he used to tell he mentioned the initiation of the farmers' institutes and how he and a colleague, determined to get their message across, gave an entire speech 'full blast and down to the last syllable' to a one-man audience in an auditorium. Approaching the man and inquiring about his farm, the man replied, 'Oh, I ain't no farmer, I'm the janitor here.'"

Yet the great horticulturalist could be diffident and self-effacing. "In my estimation you were always a perfect gentleman and kind to all alike," another colleague, Ellen Smith, wrote in a letter to Garcia shortly before his death. "How well I remember the men who came into our offices. It mattered not — whether the high or lowly, they were all treated with the same courtesy. To me that has meant a lot." In an article about the Agricultural Experiment Station, Garcia was described as "one of the most modest men in science."

Tellingly, Garcia once wrote, "The supreme object of education is to raise man to his highest power, to develop him along the lines of his noblest nature so that he will be not only keen, sagacious and shrewd but broadminded, evenly and sympathetically balanced, tolerant, sweet and charitable."

Nor did Garcia forget his own modest origins. He provided rooms at the college's farm for poor Mexican-American students. In his will, Garcia left his entire estate — more than $85,000, a lot of money in 1948 — to the university for the construction of a dormitory for needy Hispanic youth. "I want to help poor boys, because I know their hardships," he explained.

Garcia, who came to be known as "Old Director," would tell Hispanic students, "Don't be ashamed to say you're Mexican. I came from Mexico and I'm proud of it."

But it was Garcia's determination — as fiery as the chile peppers he bred — that characterized his last days. He developed Parkinson's disease and became bedridden in February 1945, a patient at McBride's Hospital. According to Singleton, "He clung to his directorship desperately, trying to work with acting director [Albert] Curry from his hospital bed."

The university regents declined to play along. Later in 1945, the university "offered Garcia the privilege of retirement, greatly (regretting) the condition which makes this action necessary." Fabian Garcia, who would have preferred to decline that "privilege," lingered on in his hospital bed for three long years, unable to continue the work he loved. Finally, on August 6, 1948, he died.

In 2005, the American Society of Horticultural Science posthumously elected Garcia to its national Hall of Fame. The 3,000-member society, founded in 1903, is the nation's largest scientific organization dedicated to advancing horticultural research and education. "This award is the cherry on top of an illustrious career," said Bosland at the time. "The inductees in this group are elite professionals who've been at the top of their profession." Garcia's plaque at the society's headquarters in Alexandria, Va., reads simply: "Dr. Fabian Garcia, a man of humble origins, but a gentleman of extraordinary achievements."

For its part, NMSU has honored Garcia by naming a 45-acre research center after him, along with a faculty-senate meeting hall, a building housing the center for international programs, and its largest dormitory, Garcia Hall.

But Fabian Garcia's greatest legacy remains the chile pods that every year encapsulate the New Mexico summer sun, the peppers whose roasting aromas are as quintessentially New Mexican each autumn as leaves are to New England, whose ripened redness adorns our doorways this time of year in festive ristras.

"Chile is something important here," says Bosland. "People here should be really proud of the fact that, yes, New Mexico really is a state in the union and grows very good chile.

"If not for Fabian Garcia, I don't know if New Mexico would have chile as part of its identity," he adds. "Or maybe we'd be like Texas, and celebrate the jalapeño."

To view the Rio Grand Historical Collections' online exhibit about Fabian Garcia, visit archives.nmsu.edu/rghc/exhibits/garciaexhibit/menu.htm. To learn more about NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute, see www.chilepepperinstitute.org, call (575) 646-3028 or email hotchile@nmsu.edu.

 

David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure and
loves to cook with chile peppers.

 

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