By Eric Peterson, Colorado Biz Daily, www. cobizmag.com
Carl Musso’s family has farmed in the Pueblo area for four generations—and counting. “My son’s five [generations],” he says. His namesake Musso Farms has about 120 years of history “growing just about everything,” including sweet corn, squash and cantaloupe.
But for the last 40 years, Pueblo chile has been Musso’s cash crop. They’re now grown on about half of the farm’s 120 acres, with recent harvests eclipsing 25,000 bushels—or about 500,000 pounds.
That number has steadily increased since Musso Farms got into the chile-roasting business in the early 1980s. “You just take it home and put it in your freezer and you have chile all winter long,” says Musso.
He says the farm’s mammoth FDA-inspected roasters can roast six bushels at a time, “We have probably the biggest roasters on the planet. They’re all custom-made in our shop.”
Chile-roasting is difficult to scale up for the national market, he adds. “There hasn’t been anything perfected yet for mass quantities. In New Mexico, they do an acid-peel bath, but it tastes awful. It has to be roasted.”
He says the Pueblo chile owes its distinctly spicy flavor to cool nights in Colorado. “That’s when the meat on the chile gets really thick walls on it, and that’s where the flavor is,” Musso says. In New Mexico, he adds, “The chile grows too fast.”
While it only counts a few local restaurants among its customers, Musso Farms supplies brewers, cheesemongers and meatpackers with chile. It also makes its own line of packaged goods: salsa, ketchup and even a pasta sauce enlivened by Pueblo chile.
The Pueblo Chile Growers Association started to take shape in 2015. Now with about 15 member farms, the association helped cement the Pueblo chile brand instead of the previous, less geographic moniker: the Mirasol chile.
Executive Director Donielle Kitzman says the association has allowed chile growers to collaborate on marketing and foster “a cult following.” She says the annual Pueblo Chile & Frijoles Festival’s attendance is an indicator. Founded in the 1990s, the festival would typically attract about 80,000 people a decade ago; that number doubled by 2019.
“We know we’re not going to be the Hatch giants,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of great wins from a branding perspective.” Kitzman sees potential for production to double. “The future is bright,” she says.
While farmland devoted to chile approaches 1,000 acres in Colorado, New Mexico has almost 10,000 under cultivation. But the trendlines are clear: The Land of Enchantment is down significantly from a 1990s peak of around 35,000 acres, whereas Pueblo chile acreage is rising.
On the rivalry with New Mexico, Musso says, “We just kind of sit back and laugh. It’s notoriety for both of us. We let the people fight it out. I’m glad for the competition, and so are they.”