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Task Force Strives to Save New Mexico's Chile Industry

LAS CRUCES -- The future of New Mexico's chile industry was in doubt long before weather, diseases and insects devastated the 1999 crop.

"A lot of people in the industry already thought we were five to seven years away from losing the processing industry altogether," said Rich Phillips, horticulturist and project coordinator with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Last fall, growers, processors and scientists met to begin long-term planning to keep their $60 million industry from moving out of state. They formed the New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force to work on issues related to costs, productivity and global competition.

"The task force has three major working groups active now, focusing on mechanical harvesting, drip irrigation and best management practices," said Phillips, the task force coordinator.

The group depends on and welcomes participation.

"We've tried to structure the task force and its working groups to encourage open participation from anyone with knowledge and interest in the work," said Joel Diemer, NMSU associate professor of agricultural economics and agricultural business. "People will only participate if they feel the industry's needs are being addressed."

New Mexico producers need a competitive edge because of a six-fold increase in chile imports from Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement, inequities in labor costs between the two countries and stricter chemical controls for American farmers.

"If nothing is done, the industry's going to go elsewhere, primarily to Third World countries where labor is cheap," said Louis Biad, a grower and processor who was instrumental in founding the task force.

To help New Mexico growers compete, the task force has a mechanical harvesting group, which includes growers, harvester manufacturers, and NMSU scientists and Cooperative Extension Service specialists. The group's coordinator is Ed Hughs, an engineer and research leader with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory on the edge of the NMSU campus.

"I would say the chile industry right now is at about the same place that the cotton industry was 40 or 50 years ago," Hughs said. "It wasn't until 1960 -- not that long ago -- that there was more machine-harvested cotton than hand-harvested. So we're at that break where we have to go from hand to machine harvesting in chile. And it's for economic reasons, the same reasons we did it in cotton."

While several small manufacturers make chile harvesters, there's an urgent need for cleaning equipment that can separate chile from stems and trash, Hughs said.

Using equipment donated by growers, the working group is developing a prototype cleaner that could be used both in the field and at the processing plant. Progress in perfecting the cleaner will be limited until the group can secure sufficient funding, Hughs said.

Marisa Wall, an NMSU horticulturist, is coordinating the group's efforts to set quality standards for mechanical harvesting of red chile and reach consensus about the type of chile plant that breeders should develop for machine picking.

A team of NMSU economists, Jim Libbin, Jerry Hawkes and Rhonda Skaggs, are working with growers and processors to gather information about the economics of mechanical harvesting.

"In economic research, the group has identified two projects in the Pecos Valley for this year where we will look at mechanical and hand harvesting both before and after the freeze," Phillips said.

The freeze causes changes in the chile plant that impact mechanical harvesting, said Jim McClendon, owner of McClendon Pepper, a harvester manufacturing company.

"The first freezing temperatures cause the plant to hold the pods tighter," he said. "Later in the season, as they dry, fruit and branches are more easily detached. Both of these conditions affect mechanical harvesting."

To conduct its studies, the task force is working with McClendon, farmers Harold Hobson of Roswell and Cecil Conklin of Artesia, SECO Spice, and Riggs and Sons Chile Dehydrators Inc.

A drip irrigation working group, coordinated by grower and processor Dino Cervantes of La Mesa, is helping farmers interested in this technology.

"In addition to water conservation, the yield and quality of the chile crop can be improved the more precise placement and timing of water and fertilizer that is possible with drip irrigation," Cervantes said.

The group is focusing on drip irrigation research, educational programs, economic efficiency, technical guidelines for farmers and incentives for using drip irrigation.

"We have quite a bit of information from other parts of the country and other parts of the world, as well as a number of innovative farmers in our area who have already installed drip irrigation," Phillips said.

The task force is teaming up with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service and Agricultural Supply Co. to sponsor a series of drip irrigation workshops Nov. 2, 3 and 4 in Deming, Hatch and Las Cruces. NMSU researchers and Extension specialists conducted similar pest management workshops in June.

The task force's third major goal is gathering information from 15 of the state's most consistent growers as part of a best management practices project, coordinated by Phillips and Robert Flynn, an agronomist with NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia. Of the 15 farmers participating in the best management practices project, four producers have lost their entire crop. Others are harvesting acceptable yields, given this year's growing conditions, which included low soil temperatures, high winds, large insect populations and a host of disease problems.

"It has been a very difficult year for farmers but an excellent year to evaluate best management practices," said task force member Marvin Clary of Border Foods in Deming.

Two new specialists will give the task force added expertise. Rebecca Creamer, a new virologist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, will conduct research on chile viruses. NMSU"s Cooperative Extension Service hired a new vegetable specialist, Bob Bevacqua, who will begin work Nov. 1.

The task force plans to present progress reports for each of the three working groups at the February 2000 New Mexico Chile Conference.

"This is a team effort, and we encourage anyone with an interest in the New Mexico chile pepper industry to get involved," Phillips said.

For more information about the Chile Pepper Task Force, contact Phillips at (505) 646-2353 or rphillip@nmsu.edu or Albina Armijo at (505) 646-7582.