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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Agricultural Engineer on Board at NMSU

LAS CRUCES - A new agricultural engineer, who will initially focus on cultivating improvements in mechanically harvesting New Mexico's multimillion-dollar chile crop, has joined New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. Ed Eaton, a Montana native, began work in January in NMSU's Extension plant sciences department.

During the past few years, international competition and a shrinking labor supply have fueled interest among New Mexico's chile growers in adopting mechanical harvesting and improved cleaning equipment. Just a few years ago, little of the state's 20,000 acres of chile, which includes paprika, cayenne, jalapeno, New Mexican and other peppers, was mechanically harvested.

Now, much of the eastern New Mexico crop is machine harvested, and there's interest in the Mesilla Valley, West Texas and eastern Arizona. A continuing problem, though, is that too much of the plant, particularly stalks, is picked along with the peppers.

"The easiest way to remove sticks is to not pick them in the first place," said Eaton, who brings more than three decades of agricultural production experience and firsthand knowledge in developing new harvesting systems. "That being said, it's difficult to do, especially during the last weeks of harvest."

Once picked and processed, chile is the state's most valuable vegetable, worth more than $200 million annually.

Prior to joining NMSU, Eaton served as a research associate and coordinator of the Arizona Extension agricultural safety program at the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agricultural Center. Among the projects he developed were a dust particulate monitoring system for cotton field preparation and a prototype hesperaloe harvester.

Hesperaloe, a native desert plant, is a potential alternative production crop that has long, thin fibers that can be used to produce paper with exceptional physical properties, he said.

In addition, for 30 years Eaton directed agricultural operations on a 100,000-acre grain and cattle family ranch in Montana. He earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering from Montana State University, and his master's degree in agricultural engineering from Colorado State University. He received his doctorate in agricultural and biosystems engineering from the University of Arizona. Eaton lives in Las Cruces with his wife, Adela.