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NMSU Field Tests Improved Mechanical Chile Thinner

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico State University is rolling out an upgraded version of a machine that economically thins chile crops, field testing it this spring from Artesia to Arizona while formulating an economic plan to get someone to build the device in bulk quantities.

New Mexico State University Chile Task Force members gauge the effectiveness of an upgraded mechanical chile thinner at a La Union farm. The modified machine, which was developed to help New Mexico's chile industry hold down costs, has a new closed-loop hydraulic power supply. (06/01/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Norman Martin)

To outlast wind, insect or disease damage, New Mexico chile growers typically plant far more seedlings than they need each year. When plants are too crowded for the growing conditions, farmers hire thinning crews to clear excess plants by hand.

Labor costs range from $75 to $150 an acre, not including liability insurance. NMSU's mechanical chile thinner, which uses an electronic sensor ahead of a cutting blade, can slice costs to $35 an acre, which includes tractor expenses, fuel costs, thinner purchase and maintenance costs.

"We're definitely on track," said Rich Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "We've added a new hydraulic power supply this year and improved the optics. Now, we're committed to finding a commercial manufacturer."

An economic analysis and marketing plan are already under way, said Jay Lillywhite, an NMSU agricultural economist. "Initial market research suggests this machine will provide a substantial cost savings for chile producers," he said.

Two Las Cruces-area farm equipment manufacturers are closely monitoring the new thinner, but there are no commitments yet. In April, NMSU formally applied for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office. Once approved, the university will be able to license the technology to manufacturers.

The research team touts the device's utility. "This thinner design has potential uses in other crops, as well," said NMSU Chile Task Force member Vince Hernandez, a production coordinator for Biad Chili in Las Cruces, one of the region's leading chile processors. "It could also be used on several vegetable crops, including carrots and lettuce."

It was Hernandez who found a 40-year-old John Deere sugar beet thinner on a farm near Portales in 2001 that served as a guide to the new, improved thinner design.

This spring, the NMSU team is traveling to several demonstration sites, including farms in La Union, Deming, Las Cruces, Artesia, Roswell and southern Arizona. "We're trying to get in as much dirt as we can this year," said Ryan Herbon, an agricultural engineer with NMSU's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center, which is designing the unit. "The goal is to find any weak point and beef up the design for a really robust machine."

The prototype thinner allows a farmer to punch in the desired blade spacing, cutting depth and sensor height on a computer screen. The machine automatically makes the adjustments. As the tractor-pulled thinner rolls forward, sensors locate plants for the cutting mechanism, which can be adjusted to slice two to 12 inches out of a row. The cutting blade sweeps back and forth like a pendulum, cutting to a depth of about an inch.

NMSU's upgraded model includes a switch from air power to a closed-loop hydraulic unit, which provides a more sustained power supply. Hydraulic systems are standard on most of today's tractors. "Now, we can run all day without stopping," Herbon said.

Another change, aimed at gaining more consistent depth control, involved adding two more wheels per unit. Herbon also tweaked the user interface, simplifying the machine's computer controls, which are directed from the tractor cab.

The thinner is part of efforts to design and build equipment to help the domestic chile industry hold down costs and compete with less expensive imports. "A mechanical thinner has the potential to increase yields because a farmer can thin when he needs to, not just when he can get a crew," said Philips, who servers as a project coordinator with NMSU's Chile Task Force.

Green chile and its ripened version, red chile, are among New Mexico's most popular cash crops. In 2003, more than 14,000 acres produced 85,000 tons of chile, mostly in the four-month span between July and October, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. Once picked and processed, chile is the state's most valuable vegetable, raking in more than $200 million annually