Scientists at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces have unveiled the second phase of a mechanical chili cleaner that removes field trash and leaves, leaving only pure peppers for processing. Experts with the New Mexico Chili Task Force believe the upgraded device is another major milestone in mechanizing New Mexico's chili industry. “Mechanizing cleaning is a critical element in our overall goal of making New Mexico chili producers and processors more competitive,” said task force coordinator Richard Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. “This is a giant step toward saving New Mexico's signature.” The task force includes processors and private research foundations, along with NMSU research andvarious Extension scientists.

During the past two decades, labor cost and availability have created huge hurdles for New Mexico chili growers, so the task force's most recent efforts have been aimed at mechanizing as much of the industry as possible, including the development of chili de-stemmers and thinners.

Recent changes in U.S. trade policies have made New Mexico's chili industry vulnerable to competition from lower-priced foreign imports, he said. American producers pay considerably more for agricultural labor Cleaning chili fresh from the field is no simple task because condition of the peppers changes throughout the harvesting season. Early in the season, when the plants are green and fresh, there's little field trash. Later in the harvest cycle, after the first frost, mechanical harvesters can pull in large amounts of brittle branches. It's one reason why NMSU engineers focused the second phase of their attack on field trash by emphasizing adjustability to meet the crop's condition. “Today, we can tune these cleaners to any chili variety and harvest condition,” said Ed Eaton, an Extension agricultural engineer who is leading construction test leader.

In NMSU's latest two-phase machine, experimental batches of machine-harvested red chili are tumbled and turned across two different prototype cleaners to remove leaves, sticks and other unwanted plant material that were harvested along with the chili pods.

The first cleaner, which was developed last year, moves the harvested chili across a bed of 6-inch, overlapping, square, plastic cards that rotate on parallel shafts. Card spacing on the first section of this tumble-type cleaner is adjusted so that small sticks fall through the spaces between the cards.

In the next section, a wider spacing between cards allows the marketable pods to drop through the cleaning bed, while sticks longer than pods are discarded. This season, NMSU agricultural engineers have added a second machine, known as a Creager cleaner, which is designed to remove trash missed by the first cleaner. Developed with a series of big coils all turning in the same direction, the device sorts chili by diameter rather than length. It allows trash and sticks that are thinner than the pods to fall between the coils. The remaining peppers move across the coil bed into a storage bin.

“Our initial tests indicate that, used in tandem with the card sorter, it will produce a very clean product,” said Eaton. Also, the Creager cleaner may be effective in removing leaves from jalapeño harvests, .Green chili and its ripened version, red chili, are among New Mexico's most popular cash crops. Last year more than 14,000 acres produced 85,000 tons of chili, mostly in the four-month span between July and October, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. Once picked and processed, chili is the state's most valuable vegetable, generating $300 million annualy. For the remainder of the harvest season, NMSU researchers will be demonstrating the field cleaners for Southwestern producers and processors.

“We'll be traveling from Wilcox, Ariz., to Seminole, Texas,” Eaton said. “We want to show them that this will work.”