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NMSU researchers study hail damage to paprika chile with simulated storms

While watching a 15-minute hail storm on May 18 disintegrate the leaves on chile plants, Israel Calsoyas realized the importance of research she is conducting at New Mexico State University.


Two people in field of chile plants ? one with a water sprayer
New Mexico State University agricultural researchers are studying how chile pepper plants respond to hail storm damage. Israel Calsoyas, project manager, simulates a hail storm by spraying the plants with water at a pressure of 200 pounds per square inch. She is conducting the simulation at three points in the plant?s growth and at three degrees of destruction. The data will help chile growers decide what action to take if their fields are hit by hail. (NMSU photo by Kristie Garcia)
A field of chile plants
Paprika red chile plants take a beating during a simulated hail storm as New Mexico State University researchers gather data on how the plants respond including how the hail storm impacted the plant?s chile yield. (NMSU photo by Kristie Garcia)

?All you could see after the storm was the main branches left bare,? she recalled. ?I thought about the farmers whose main income comes from a chile pepper crop and I realized that my research is really important.?

Calsoyas, a College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences doctoral student studying plant physiology in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is establishing data regarding the impact of hail damage on paprika chile pepper yield.

Hail is one of the weather risks all farmers face, no matter what type of crop they are raising. It can demolish a crop in minutes. Across the country where hail is a frequent event, farmers often purchase a crop-hail insurance policy to protect high-yielding crops.

?During the last 30 years, New Mexico has had an increase in incidents of severe hail damage, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration,? Calsoyas said. ?Because of this, the National Crop Insurance Service and other insurance agencies are interested in data to help them calculate how to refund people for their crop yield loss.?

In 2014, 1,466 of the 8,600 acres of chile peppers planted in New Mexico was insured for hail damage, according to National Crop Insurance Service.

Chile is a broadleaf crop, so it is more sensitive to hail damage than a slender leaf crop, such as corn. For corn, the diameter of the hail has to be an inch or larger to cause damage. With chile it can be even less than that to cause damage.

When hail damage occurs the farmer must decide whether to till the crop under and start over with a different crop, mow the chile pepper allowing it to grow back, or ride it out to see what type of yield they get.

?Farmers want to know if hail hits their crop during the growing season how the plants are going to respond,? she said. ?Is their yield going to be the same or is it going to be decreased??
Part of the equation for the farmer?s decision is when the damage occurs.

?If it is early in the season, chile is actually really vigorous and will come back. Sometimes, growers will mow down the plants to within six inches of the ground, and the plant will come back.?

Chile pepper plants? growth is partially determined by the air temperature. Optimum growth occurs in the range of 64 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In warmer temperature conditions plants develop at a slower pace, if at all. The farmer?s action is determined by whether there will be enough days in the optimum temperature range for the plant to recover and produce fruit after hail damage.

To see how the plants recover from damage during the season, Calsoyas has simulated hail damage at three different points in the chile plants? growth by using pressurized water sprayed on the plants at three different damage levels ? slight, medium and high.

?What we are trying to create is 30, 60 and 90 percent plant damage at different growth stages ? first bloom, fruit setting on and fruit at full maturity,? she said.

Simultaneously, the researcher is conducting a stand production trial where she will see how surviving plants response when a percentage of plants are removed from the plot.

?Typically, research has shown, when you reduce the stand the remaining plants start to grow more vigorously because they have more space and less competition so they put on a lot of fruit and become more bush-like,? Calsoyas said. ?However, other research has shown a field with a higher population of plants will produce more per acre than a field with a lower population, even though the field with a lower population may have more yield per plant.?

While yield is important, for red paprika growers, the color of the pepper also is important because of the red oleoresin extracted from the chile, which is used in a variety of products.

?We want to see how hail damage affects the color,? she said. ?Since the color is factored into the value of the paprika chile, this information will help the grower while deciding what to do with their field: continue raising the plants or to till them under.?

Paprika chile pepper harvest begins in late September in southern New Mexico. At that time Calsoyas will gather data regarding the yield of the different scenarios. Next year she will repeat the research to gather more information.

?The information we are gathering will benefit the growers with their cropping decisions, as well as the insurance companies in compensating for the crop loss,? she said. ?At the end of next year?s season, we should have final results that say how much the crop yield will be reduced depending on when the hail damage occurred and the severity of the hail event.?