New Mexico chile producers are about to get a boost from real rocket scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, which often does research on advanced weapon design, has agreed to aim its engineering horsepower at improving mechanical chile harvesters.
Under a new agreement, the New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force and Sandia's New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program will focus on a troublesome problem farmers have as chile is harvested: too much of the plant is picked along with the peppers.
The Chile Pepper Task Force, formed in 1998, identifies and implements ways to keep the state's chile production profitable. It includes growers, harvester manufacturers, and New Mexico State University scientists and Cooperative Extension Service specialists. The task force has three major working groups focusing on mechanical harvesting, drip irrigation and best management practices.
“We're looking for new ideas,” said Richard Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service and coordinator of the Chile Pepper Task Force. “These people may not know the chile industry, but they do know a lot about engineering and physics, and that might be helpful in separating trash from good chile.”
In hand harvesting, a grower can selectively pick chile pods, explained Ed Hughs, research leader at USDA's Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Las Cruces and a founding member of the Chile Task Force.
In mechanically harvesting, the machine is much less discerning. “It'll take branches and sometimes whole plants,” he said.
The NMSBA program allows Sandia officials to give $150,000 worth of technical advice and assistance to a consortium of 15 southern New Mexico small businesses under the auspices of the task force. A Sandia spokesperson said the NMSBA program allows Sandia to give up to $10,000/year worth of technical advice and assistance to individual small businesses throughout New Mexico. Other projects throughout the state cover a range of businesses and problems, from helping a small-town firm make a better lava aggregate building material to helping a rural winery solve a processing problem.
As part of a field level review of mechanized chile harvesting, Sandia sent a hands-on team of four engineers, along with the director and project manager of the small business initiative, to southern New Mexico in early October. Shortly after the technical assessment, Sandia officials notified task force officials that the lab, which is operated by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin Co., would be able to provide technical engineering support.
“Between now and December we'll be working on the scope of the work, and what kind of expertise they might be able to bring to the project,” Phillips said.
Looking ahead, he said, the goal is to design and develop new prototype cleaning equipment in time for next season's crop.
There's an underlying sense of urgency now in moving the research forward. The window of opportunity for developing a mechanical harvesting process is narrowing.
“We only have about five to 10 years before we don't have a commercial red chile market,” said James Libbin, a farm management specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service in Las Cruces. Competition is heating up from countries around the globe that pay very low wages. Hand labor accounts for more than half the cost of chile production.
New Mexico's $200 million chile processing industry has begun the changeover process. In the last decade few of the state's 19,000 acres of pepper production, which includes paprika, cayenne, jalapeño, long green and hot peppers, were mechanically harvested. Now, much of the eastern New Mexico crop is machine harvested, and there's interest on the practice in the Mesilla Valley, as well as in west Texas and eastern Arizona.