Some like It Hot: Mary Alice Garay Continues Family Tradition of Growing and Processing Chile Peppers

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The chile pepper is not just a top crop in the Hatch Valley of southwest New Mexico, it is a key part of the regional culture. All things "chile" are even celebrated each autumn with a festival that attracts 30,000 people and media that has included the Food Network and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

While the region has ideal soil and climate conditions for growing top-quality chile peppers, acreage devoted to the crop has been declining in recent years, due in large part to soaring prices for cotton and alfalfa, resulting in an acreage shift away from peppers.

That's meant even stronger demand, however, for the chile products processed by M.A. & Sons of Arrey, N.M., where not only are the food products spicy, but the business is also hot.

"We have well-established markets, and they are buying everything we can produce," says Mary Alice Garay, the head of the family business and the "M.A." of the company name.

The Garay family grows about 15 percent of the chile peppers it processes, contracting with about 14 other farmers for the rest of their crop needs.

"We have growers who we have worked with for many years, and we are loyal to each other. So we have not experienced a drop in our supply," she says.

The "Sons" part of the company name refers to Frank, Randy and Patrick Garay, Mary Alice's three sons, all whom are active in the business. "My dad had a small processing plant, and I was always involved in it," Garay says. "When he retired, I took it over and my sons came into the business."

Each family member has an area of specialty. Mary Alice does the bookwork and handles most financial aspects of running the family business. Patrick takes care of all the plant-related billing and helps in plant operations. Frank runs the field and farming operations. All of them also have their own farms.

Garay says it does seems as if more women are assuming leadership positions on farms and related businesses in New Mexico, which she thinks will continue to grow as more women become heads of farming households. She does not feel she has encountered any resentment about being a woman on the board--which has perhaps been helped, in part, by the fact that at least one woman served on the board before her.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With her agribusiness background, Garay didn't feel there was any reason she couldn't do the job of co-op director just as well as a man could. The gender of a director shouldn't be a factor, it should just be about whether they have the skills and commitment to the association, she feels.

A chile puree for purists

The Garay's flagship product is their New Mexico Homestyle Red Chile Puree. "We go an extra step beyond what most others do, taking out all the stems, skins and seeds. This avoids the bitter taste you can get with some chile purees. That is our edge," Garay explains.

M.A.& Sons market the puree in 14- and 56-ounce containers, as well as in three-gallon buckets. "There is a lot of potential for growing the size of our puree business," she says.

Whole chile pods are sold to wholesalers who re-pack and market them to the retail trade, where consumers buy them for their own sauces.

"The bulk of what we sell goes to big spice companies," Garay says. These companies further process the crushed chile they buy from M.A. & Sons. "We also produce paprikas that are used for food coloring and as a mild spice that is popular when sprinkled on deviled eggs and other dishes."

Some products are sold direct to the public at the plant. The company's annual sales average in the $3 million to $3.5 million range.

"In the past five or six years, we have also branched out into frozen enchilada sauce. Schools are our biggest customer there, but we also sell to major grocery chains."

Elected to Farm Credit board

Even with the long family tradition in the business, securing loans from commercial banks for farming and agricultural operations isn't always easy, Garay says. …