New Mexico without chili? That's as unthinkable as France without wine. But in the late 1990s, global competition threatened to completely steal the market for the state's cultural icon, the chili pepper.

The New Mexico Chili Task Force was formed to fight back, using the talents of the chili industry aided by researchers at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), New Mexico State University, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories.

The Task Force decided that automation would go a long way toward helping chili peppers become more competitive globally. Chili pepper harvesting occurs at about the same stage as cotton harvesting was 50 years ago: mostly hand-picked.

Ed Hughs, an agricultural engineer at the ARS Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory near Las Cruces, N.M., and colleagues began using their cotton-cleaning experience to invent an automated pepper-cleaning machine — the Task Force's first priority. The cleaner has been tested successfully for two harvests.

Chili peppers are often rotated with cotton in New Mexico, eastern Arizona and western Texas, making Hughs' dual expertise more understandable. The Southwest produces 90 percent of U.S. chilis and about a third of the country's cotton.

The Task Force is determined to use the area's available federal, state and industry expertise to be sure that U.S. and world markets for red chili, green chili, jalapeno and cayenne peppers continue to generate more than $400 million a year for New Mexico.

Read more about this research in Agricultural Research magazine. ARS is the U.S.D.A.'s chief scientific research agency.