In the last 20 years, New Mexico chile acreage has plummeted by about two-thirds – from about from 35,000 acres in the early 1990s to about 12,300 acres today, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“This acreage reduction corresponds to the North American Free Trade Agreement which caused a lot of production to move to Mexico,” said Ed Hughs, research leader with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Hughs is based at the Southwest Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Mesilla Park, N.M. He delivered a presentation prepared by the ARS’ Paul Funk.

“Mechanization is an absolute necessity,” Hughs said. “Our harvest costs can be 50 percent of the total production costs. We can compete in land, fertilizer, and other costs except labor, which can be six to 30 times higher than other countries. Mechanization is a labor-saving way to keep the producer in business and the industry healthy.”

About 100 percent of U.S. red chile and paprika peppers are currently mechanically harvested, along with about 90 percent of the jalapeno crop. Hughs says the major need for mechanization is in fresh market and fresh-for-frozen green peppers which are almost all hand harvested.

More than 200 mechanical harvesters have been developed and tested around the world. Green chile is still mostly picked by hand due to harvester damage to the pod and the need to de-stem the pod for the whole green chile market. 

In 2008, the Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory and NMSU evaluated five harvester designs in a field with five green chile varieties.

“The ideal green chile machine must be gentle and cause less damage and field loss,” Hughs said to the pepper crowd. “The only machine that came close to meeting the criteria was an Israeli machine that is currently commercially available. Nearly 80 percent of the fruit harvested by the machine was marketable. One chile was broken for every eight chiles harvested whole.”

The USDA-ARS unveiled a green chile harvester during a pepper conference tour stop at the Leyendecker Plant Science Research Center.

“We are trying to reduce human drudgery (hand picking) and keep the producer in business,” Hughs said.

Also on display at the Leyendecker facility was a green chile de-stemmer which will be brought to market. The de-stemmer was developed after four years of work and 15 prototypes, under a partnership between the NMCA and the New Mexico State University’s Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC).

The 40-foot-long, 10-lane “computer controller cutter” utilizes six Windows-based computers plus video cameras to identify the stem on the chile. Scissor-shaped knives cut the stem off at the rate of 10,000 pounds per hour.

M-TEC will test the de-stemmer at processing plants this fall.

“Our target is a 90-95 percent de-stem rate with less than a 10 percent yield loss,” said Ryan Herbon, M-TEC’s de-stemmer project leader.