East of Pueblo, out across the St. Charles mesa, an old gravel lane winds between lush fields and up to the modest home of Praxie Vigil.

East of Pueblo, out across the St. Charles mesa, an old gravel lane winds between lush fields and up to the modest home of Praxie Vigil.

Some might call him “old school.” He and his family sell only what they (or, in a pinch, their nearest neighbors) grow. They don’t operate a roadside stand like the ones so common along this stretch of highway. Instead, Vigil’s eight children disperse every week from the farm to satellite outlets scattered across the Front Range from Raton, New Mexico, to Monument.

Vigil’s also not interested in the u-pick model, whereby customers go out into the fields to do their own harvesting, which could potentially harm his plants.

But regardless of his slightly crusty demeanor, at this time of year he cleans out the shed, sets up a roaster and waits for the customers to start streaming in.

Chile roasting season has begun.

“We don’t utilize advertising too much, just word-of-mouth,” he said. “Everybody’s got their own customers. It’s all about how you pick it and how you roast it.”

Generations of chile growers in this area have long operated in just this way, each carving out their distinctive niche and customer base, jostling for market share with other chile-growing families in rivalries more often good-natured than terse. Now that easy camaraderie is beginning to pay off. The Pueblo Chile Growers Association, now in its second year, is uniting growers like Vigil around a shared mission, as he describes it, “to keep New Mexico chiles out of Pueblo.”

It’s a sentiment provoked by the annual flood of famous Hatch chiles that surge into stores and restaurants every summer, often crowding out the local chiles, even on their own home turf.

Someone once had the audacity to ask Vigil if he would roast a batch of Hatch chilies for him.

Vigil stiffly refused, saying the poor quality might contaminate his roaster.

“I wouldn’t feed that to my pigs,” he sniffed. “That chile does not compare to the chile around here. We take pride in what we do.”

Vigil (pronounced VEE-hill), the rare Spanish descendant in a farming enclave dominated by ethnic Italians, said he has at times felt ostracized. But he’s willing to overlook past slights to be part of an unprecedented new marketing collaboration designed to help local growers even the score.

According to another local farmer, Dominic DiSanti, current chairman of the chile growers’ association, Hatch chiles are abundant and cheap mostly due to the size and scale of southern New Mexico’s farms. In addition, New Mexico raises mostly Anaheim peppers, which yield better, whereas Pueblo’s preferred Mosco peppers are a specialized variety.

Around Pueblo, the common refrain you’ll hear from growers is that their focus is on quality, not quantity. Regardless, Hatch chiles seem to show up everywhere this time of year, including on restaurant menus and grocery sale flyers in Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Pueblo chile growers consider that an insult they are no longer willing to take sitting down. About 20 farms pitched in last year to fund a blitz of Pueblo chile billboards, signs, posters and banners, featuring eye-catching artwork by local artist Teresa Vito, aimed at finally giving the local chiles their due.

The verdict is still out on whether the marketing push is bringing more first-time customers to local farm stands.

Just west of the Vigil farm, Kim DiTomaso and her husband Gary get a jump on the chile-roasting season every year by raising some of their peppers from transplants as well as seed.

They’re also forced to stock items like fresh strawberries in their 70-year-old store, which is marked by a large tree stump carved into the shape of a sunglasses-clad dancing chile, an indication of where their heart really lies.

“It’s the stuff we don’t grow that brings people out. Not enough is in season early on to satisfy them,” she said.

Still, she and her family believe the joint promotion of Pueblo chiles is starting to have an impact. “It gives us more visibility. It's been great advertising,” she said.

That’s the goal of the chile association: to put Pueblo chiles on the map, while introducing the “people behind the pepper,” as Pueblo’s tourism director Donielle Gonzalez describes it.

The group is taking a gradual, long-term, multi-pronged approach to the task.

Gonzalez, who works full-time for Pueblo’s Chamber of Commerce, is promoting a map of certified farm stands that sell authentic Pueblo chiles; setting up exhibits and chile roasting during the Colorado State Fair; arranging local farm tours for several visiting convention groups this fall; and developing a detailed website with online marketing capabilities.

She’s also helping the growers negotiate supplier agreements with stores like Whole Foods Market, as well as national food distributors, restaurants and even breweries.

“We want to dethrone the Hatch chile in Colorado for sure, and maybe even move into their territory a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “It’ll be a slow process, with them so far ahead of the game.”

For travelers willing to follow the highway past the string of farm stands during chile roasting season, the drive offers a Norman Rockwellian trip back in time, past old-timey stores, gas stations and drive-ins skirted by fields of onions, sweet corn and the beloved chiles, all of it stitched together by the ancient arteries of irrigation canals.

Along the way are characters like Praxie Vigil, whose creased face hints at more than half a century spent tending to the demands of growing peppers, hay, cattle and other crops.

“When it started out, it was my dad and his seven brothers and me, and then finally I took the whole thing over,” he said of the farm’s history.

When he gazes out over his fields, he still envisions his mother standing there, as hard at work as any of the men.

She has passed on, but his dad is still going strong at 101.

Is a steady diet of spicy local chiles behind such impressive longevity?

“No, I think it’s stubbornness,” Vigil said.

Indeed, the surrounding patchwork of multigenerational farms would not exist without steely resolve in the face of continually rising costs, stagnant prices and the omnipresent risk of unpredictable weather, Vigil is quick to make that clear. Most of the local farmers also hold down other jobs on the side.

“I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and it’s not getting any easier,” he said.