NAFTA has not been particularly kind to the New Mexico chili industry.

Producers in the state that identifies with chili peppers, finds itself between a jalapeno and a hot place as it gears up to compete with Mexico and other countries that are unburdened with the regulations imposed on U.S. farmers. And many competitors pay labor $5 or less a day instead of $5 or more per hour.

Net result is the New Mexico chili industry stands to lose a good chunk of a multi-million-dollar business. But not if industry leaders can help it.

Recognizing the threat, the industry put together a consortium of experts in the fall of 1998 to examine the dilemma created when agricultural globalization started putting heat on New Mexico's chili profits. The Chili Task Force grew out of that effort.

“We've identified a number of projects aimed at making New Mexico chili producers and processors more competitive,” says Rich Phillips, project manager for the New Mexico State University Extension Service and project coordinator with the task force, which includes processors, private research foundations, NMSU Research and Extension scientists from several disciplines and the USDA cotton gin lab, near the NMSU Las Cruces campus.

“Doing nothing,” Phillips says, “would mean losing a significant part of our chili industry within five to seven years.”

Labor cost and availability create the biggest hurdles for New Mexico chili growers, so initial efforts examine potential to mechanize as much of the industry as possible.

“Mechanizing harvest, cleaning, and thinning will reduce labor demand significantly,” Phillips says. “Part of the problem is that we haven't been able to get the quality labor we used to find. At one time, producers could count on employing the same workers year after year. It's more transient now and less dependable.”

Phillips says several engineers are working on mechanization.

Available harvesters

“Currently, three mechanical harvesters are available,” he says. “Some have been around for about 10 years and are serving the industry well. But improving the cleaning process will be a key. We've worked with all three manufacturers and think we have a model that will work commercially.”

He says Sandia National Lab, an industry research partner, is working on cleaning stations that use mechanical, optical and air units.

One of the challenges, he says, is the difference between chili varieties. “As the product changes, cleaning adjustments must change, too,” he says. “We started with red chilis, since they are hardest to clean. If we get something to work on reds, the other types should be easier to adjust to. Then we have to develop a system that will de-stem green chili.”

Currently, workers have to pull stems off green chilis by hand. “That represents a big expense, Phillips says.

The Task Force is getting help on the cleaning system from what, at first glance, seems an unlikely source, the USDA Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory. “It's actually a good fit,' Phillips says. “Cotton and chili work well in rotation, so what's good for one may help the other. And the gin lab has done excellent work in finding more efficient ways to clean cotton.”

Ed Hughs, engineer and research leader with the gin research lab, on the edge of the NMSU campus, says the things gins do to clean cotton may be applicable to chili. “The product is different but we find similarities. For instance, in each we have to remove trash and leaves.

“We cobbled together a machine, put together a proposal and got a grant to study chili cleaning.”

Hughs says the effort, in its fourth year has produced a prototype machine. “Sandia is working on it,” he says, “as well as Extension ag engineers. We're making progress. This fall we'll put the prototype in the field or at a processing plant. It will work at either place.”

Hughs says a series of machines likely will come from the effort, depending on the product being cleaned. He says eliminating sticks from red chili may be one of the most difficult obstacles. “We'll work on other varieties later on.”

He says the work is important to the state's agriculture. “The chili industry brings in $200 million to $300 million a year.”

Thinning challenge

Thinning poses another economical challenge for chili farmers. Wes Eaton, lead design engineer at the NMSU Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center, says chili seed germination is inconsistent, so producers plant significantly more seed than they'll need and hire labor to thin the plants to a uniform stand.

“Hand thinning costs as much as $150 per acre,” he says.

“We tested a thinning machine last year that was based on an old sugar beet thinner. It didn't work well on chili, so we started building one from scratch last August and have been conducting tests this spring. Initial tests indicated where we needed to make adjustments, but the machine is proving effective on chili thinning.”

Eaton says a consistent thinning machine will cost approximately $30 per acre, compared to the $150 for hand labor. “Most growers want a four-row or eight row machine but they can be made for any row numbers.”

He says a photo-electronic sensor installed on the machine controls a blade that clips off seedlings below ground, deep enough so they don't recover. He says the machine action does not vary with speed but cuts based on distance traveled.

“We're close to having the machine we want,” he says. “Remaining changes are minor.”

When the machine is ready, NMSU will find a manufacturer to build and distribute it. “The goal is to have a few machines out to the farmers by next thinning season,” Eaton says.

Genetics also plays a role in reworking the New Mexico chili industry.

Stephanie Walker, a NMSU research specialist, is “trying to breed a better chili plant. Germination is one thing I'll look at,” she says. But she's also trying to develop chili varieties that adapt to mechanical harvest.

“I'm looking at factors that influence mechanical harvesting,” she explains. “We want to pick the chili and leave the stalks. I have some ideas about what makes a better plant.”

She says the location of chili on the plant may hold a key to machine harvest efficiency. “If pods are concentrated, they can be hard to get off the stem. If they are widely dispersed, they may come off easily, but stem and stick trash can be more of a problem.” She's looking for a happy medium. “A more upright plant will assure that a machine makes contact with the pods.”

When she gets all this figured out for red chilis, she'll do the same for greens, which currently must be de-stemmed by hand. “We already have a machine that does a decent job de-stemming jalapenos.”

Walker has found genetic differences with ease of detachment. “I have some breeding lines I'm excited about after three or four years of work. I hope to have easy de-stemming varieties in another few years.”

She says NuMex Garnet, released last year, shows promise. “The pods come off easily, but we still have much work to do. I guess I'll never find the perfect chili.” So far she has not used genetic engineering to transfer traits. “I also have to consider yield, quality and disease resistance with any variety I plan to release.”

Without the production, the task force's work will mean little.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com