Above: Mike Bartolo is senior scientist and Extension vegetable crops specialist at CSU’s research center in Rocky Ford. He developed the most popular pepper variety grown and marketed as Pueblo chile. But don’t ask him to pick between Pueblo and Hatch. “That’s comparing apples and oranges,” he says.

By Coleman Cornelius | Photo by Dave Nehigh for Colorado Country Life Magazine

You might think Mike Bartolo would have a quick answer to this burning question: Who grows better chile – New Mexico or Colorado? After all, Bartolo is the horticulturist who developed chile varieties especially for farmers in southeastern Colorado’s Arkansas Valley, where most of the state’s peppers are grown.

Those varieties, marketed as Pueblo chile, were hot news earlier this year. That’s when the governors of Colorado and New Mexico exchanged fiery rhetoric over the merits of green chile grown in their respective states, a debate chile aficionados and news media kindled throughout the harvest season. Stoking the flames, the Pueblo Chile Growers Association hosted tasting challenges, and the New Mexico Tourism Department roasted Colorado with a pricey ad campaign proclaiming New Mexico as “chile capital of the world.”

The tiff dates to 2015, when regional Whole Foods stores started selling Pueblo chile from Colorado instead of Hatch chile from New Mexico. (Of course, markets in New Mexico hold to their own.)

Sidestepping chatter about which state grows better chile, Bartolo recently noted that publicity is a boon for farmers in both states. “I look at it as a little bit amusing,” Bartolo said of the flareup. “It’s good-hearted and good-motivated and hopefully stimulates more consumption of chile overall – and more awareness of our connections to food and culture.”

Bartolo manages Colorado State University’s Arkansas Valley Research Center. For nearly 30 years, he has conducted research into irrigation efficiency, pest management, and soil health to identify sustainable cultivation practices that improve crop production in the region spanning the Arkansas River east of Pueblo. He and fellow scientists have tested these practices while growing crops important to the area – melons, onions, tomatoes, wheat, corn, and more.

But early in his scientific career, Bartolo inherited a bag of chile seed from his uncle, Harry Mosco, a first-generation Italian American and World War II veteran who farmed near Pueblo. Bartolo, raised on a neighboring family farm, remembered his uncle as “a quiet gentleman who worked for years to scratch out a modest living.”

When Bartolo got the seed – found in a garage after his uncle’s death – he decided to plant some at the CSU research center, curious about the chile it would produce. Soon after, Bartolo spotted a plant with peppers that were a bit bigger, with thicker walls than the others. He saved the seeds and planted them the following year, again looking for superior traits, again saving seeds. His chile breeding became a passion project that stretched over three decades, apart from his core research.

From his uncle’s bag of seed, Bartolo has made some 400 selections and over the years has developed three distinct chile varieties now grown on nearly 1,000 acres planted in peppers in the Arkansas Valley. These strains, commercially marketed as Pueblo chile, have helped propel a surge in regional chile farming.

Tops among his varieties is the Mosco chile – named for Bartolo’s uncle – a hot, meaty pepper that has become the most widely grown cultivar in the region. Bartolo’s chile breeding also has produced the Giadone cultivar, a pungent pepper named for Pete Giadone, a well-known Pueblo grower and chile advocate; and the Pueblo Popper, a round novelty chile that works well for stuffed pepper recipes.

These and other varieties are the stars of the show during the annual Pueblo Chile & Frijoles Festival, which attracts as many as 150,000 people to Pueblo’s historic district each September. The festival, awarded as an outstanding community initiative during the 2019 Colorado Governor’s Tourism Conference, began after conversations between Bartolo and Rod Slyhoff, president of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.

“Mike is well-described as a ‘fire starter.’ His leadership in Pueblo and southern Colorado is tremendous,” Slyhoff said.

As the region’s chile industry blossoms, Bartolo continues to pursue his longtime side project. “The Mosco chile is not a perfect chile. There are about 10 traits I would love to change,” he said. “I’m still hoping I’ll have a couple new varieties to release before I retire.”