In the heart of chile country, a race to develop a much-needed mechanical harvester is taking on new urgency.
“If we don't get machine harvesting perfected in the next few years, there won't be a chile industry here,” said Gale Carr, business manager of Border Land Farms, a 2,800 acre farm along the U.S.-Mexico border.
By some accounts, New Mexico's chile growers are more than hot for a mechanical version of a pepper picker. Just a few years ago few of the state's 20,000 acres of chile, which includes paprika, cayenne, jalapeño, long green and hot peppers, were mechanically harvested. The vast majority of the $200 million crop was laboriously handpicked, just as it had been for the last century.
Today, several high-producing New Mexico counties machine harvest, but the clock is ticking. U.S. machine harvesters have to move beyond what is essentially an experimental phase.
“We have to find cheaper ways to harvest the crop,” said Richard Phillips, a project manager with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in Las Cruces. Huge slices of the state's market have already slipped south of the border. After the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, more than 70 percent of the state's jalapeño production shifted to Mexico, he said.
Meantime, competition is heating up from countries around the world that pay very low wages. “We hear an awful lot about Mexican imports of both jalapeños and red chile, but the competition is just as serious from Spain, Zimbabwe, India and South Africa,” said James Libbin, a financial management specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service in Las Cruces.
New Mexico's chile production problems lie both in cost and availability of hand labor to harvest the crop.
“The United States can compete in every area of growing and processing chile — except for the harvest,” said Ed Hughs, research leader in harvest cleaning equipment at the USDA's Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Las Cruces.
NMSU's agricultural experts estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of chile production cost is tied to hand harvesting, which is why researchers have spent the last 40 years trying to perfect a mechanical chile harvester, usually based on a harvesting platform used in cotton.
Unfortunately, Hughs conceded, there is no direct correlation to cotton. While cotton is basically cotton after it matures, chile is simply too varied — it's green, it's red, it's wet, it's dry.
“In hand harvesting, you can selectively pick chile pods,” he said. “When you're mechanically harvesting, the machine is much less discerning. It'll take branches and sometimes whole plants.” Eliminating this field trash is essential for processing.
Chile is a crucial rotation crop in New Mexico. In addition to bringing a high price, it provides stable income for producers because more than 90 percent of production is under contract to processors.
In an effort to boost the state's chile market, a multidisciplinary group of growers, processors and scientists known as the New Mexico Chile Pepper Task Force formed in 1998 to identify and implement ways to keep the state's pepper production profitable. The highest priority went to developing mechanized harvesting and cleaning equipment.
In addition, NMSU scientists looked at development of chile varieties and production practices suited to mechanical harvesting, particularly optimum plant spacing. Robert Flynn, an Extension agronomist, is running a series of soil tests and stand-density trials on chile at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.
While this season's results are still being weighed and analyzed, he said it appeared plots with no spacing between plants held immediate advantages.
“In dense stands there was no need to go in with a hand crew and weed the plots,” Flynn said. “This saves a step in the production, and a whole lot of money.”
The shift in pulling peppers has progressed far enough to encompass the processing plant. Don Biad, co-owner of Biad Chili Co., a 40 year old chile processing facility 10 miles north of Las Cruces, said machine harvesting allows the use of “live floor” trailers for bulk delivery.
The units, which are also known as “walking floor” trailers, have hydraulically powered slats built into the bed of the trailer to speed up the unloading process by dumping the chile in one long, slow-moving sequence.
As tons of brilliant machine-harvested red peppers spilled out the back of one of the hulking units from Gale Carr's farm, Biad affirmed his faith in the future of New Mexico's chile industry.
“You can't tell the difference from hand-harvested,” he said, squinting into the sun.