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NMSU Extension vegetable specialist stays busy fielding media inquiries about chile

The aroma of chile roasting is a sign that fall has arrived in New Mexico.

Three people in a chile field, with a sign that says Jarales
Stephanie Walker, NMSU Extension vegetable specialist and spokes person for New Mexico chile growers and processing industry, is called upon frequently by media from across the country to answer questions about the hot culinary subject: chile. Recently she talks with chile enthusiasts during a field tour of landrace chile. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

For Stephanie Walker, that aroma means an increase in phone calls from people from near and far asking about the uniquely New Mexican spicy crop.

As New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service's vegetable specialist, Walker fields inquiries about the chile crop at least once a month. During chile season, the calls increase to as many as two a week from the media wanting information about the state's native plant.

"The calls are mainly newspapers and radio stations from around the state, and periodically the call will be from national media," she said.

One of those calls, recently, was a National Public Radio reporter who needed Walker's expertise about the processing of chile. Earlier this month, she was on the Public Broadcasting Service series "Ask This Old House."

"For most professors, it's not necessarily part of their job duties to have interviews with the media, but for Extension faculty it is our duty to get the information out to the general public," she said. "I consider it a very important part of my job."

Working with Paul Bosland and the New Mexico Chile Pepper Institute, Walker has become a voice for the chile growers and processing industry.

Sometimes, she doesn't know where that spokesperson role is going to take her. Such as in 2009, when the Food Network called the chile institute requesting someone to join them at the Chile Festival in Bosque Del Apache to answer questions about the history of chile.

"I was ready to answer their questions," she said. "But, when I got to the festival, things changed. Before I knew it, I was judging green chile cheeseburgers for a Bobby Flay Throwdown against Bobby Olguin, owner of the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio."

That was her introduction into the behind-the-scenes world of television.

"Hanging around with the camera crew and producers, I realized that New Mexico is an exotic place to them," she said. "Our culture is very unique and of interest to people from across the nation."

During the recent shooting of the "Ask This Old House" episode, she discovered the amount of time it takes to produce a 10-minute segment - all day.

"We pretty much adlib most of it, including when I told the host, Roger Cook, that a large bag of chile was a week's supply for most New Mexicans," she said.

Walker's introduction into the world of chile expanded from an average person to expert over the years since 1984 when she obtained her undergraduate degree in biology, specializing in microbiology, from NMSU.

"My family moved to Las Cruces when I was in middle school. We came from a very non-spicy part of the country to a spicy place," she said of the move from her native Pennsylvania, to Montreal, Canada, then to New Mexico. "It took a few years before we really started to like eating chile. Now I have it with every meal."

Walker never thought about a career or occupation associated with chiles, until she landed a job at the Old El Paso Mountain Pass Canning plant as a quality control supervisor.

"It was a unique take on things," she said. "My first few years at Mountain Pass Canning, I had the pleasure of actually working with our field manager Joe Parker, for whom the 'NuMex Joe E. Parker' chile is named. I got to learn first-hand from Joe what makes good quality green chile."

After 10 years, she returned to NMSU as a graduate student with world-renowned chile researcher Bosland.

"While at Mountain Pass I worked in research and development, and found that I was fascinated with the genetics, and wanted to get more into the actual chile variety work," she said.

While obtaining her master's and doctorate, Walker's research has focused on developing a plant that is resistant to phytophthora capsici, a devastating disease that can attack the roots, leaves and fruit of the chile plant; and developing a variety of paprika that can be harvested mechanically.

In 2004 she assumed the duties of the NMSU Extension's vegetable specialist.