"The sky is not falling," said Paul Bosland, conference co-chairman and chile breeder with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "We're going to have a good crop this year, and there will be water available; it just might not be coming from the Rio Grande.

"What we're looking at this year are the different options available to our growers, as well as the development of new irrigation technologies including drip and microsprinklers," he said.

Despite late-season snows, much of the West remains gripped by drought. National Weather Service forecasters predict a return to dry weather in much of the region, all but guaranteeing more water shortages in the coming months.

"It's more important than ever to get the biggest irrigation bang for your buck and still limit water stress on the crop," said Ed Martin, a conference speaker and engineer with the University of Arizona's agricultural and biosystems engineering department. "We're going to take a close look at new ways to measure soil moisture, including an interesting device using a microwave pulse. The goal is to get more efficient use of the water."

Sponsored by NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute, the daylong program brings together some of the top names in the world of pepper pods. More than 400 chile industry growers, processors and researchers are expected to attend.

Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. and the program starts at 8:30 a.m. Registration for the conference costs $75 before Jan. 30 and $95 afterward.

This year's conference will feature talks on pressing water issues facing New Mexico, including a Rio Grande basin update by Water Task Force coordinator Craig Runyan, a water quality specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. Other presenters will provide updates from the Chile Pepper Task Force, Elephant Butte Irrigation District and New Mexico Chile Commission.

Ed Hughs, research leader in harvest cleaning equipment at the USDA's Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory in Las Cruces, will discuss advances in mechanical harvesting technology, including prototypes of thinning and sorting devices for chile.

Attractions include more than 15 supplier and manufacturer booths featuring harvesting machinery, equipment, chemicals and fertilizers, transplants and irrigation equipment, said John White, conference co-chairman and Doña Ana County horticulture agent with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. In addition, there will be technical and special sessions for chile professionals featuring the latest chile research findings and presentations from Extension specialists and industry leaders.

Technical presentations will cover mechanical harvesting and cleaning systems, marketing strategies, integrated pest management, farmers markets, on-farm irrigation, salinity and chile processing.

A poster session for graduate student research is the final item on the conference agenda. This year a special award of excellence will be given to the best research poster. Sponsored by NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, the award will include a $1,000 travel allowance for the chosen graduate student to present the winning poster at a research meeting of their choice.

For more information or if you are an individual with a disability who is in need of an auxiliary aid or service to participate in the meeting, please contact Danise Coon at (505) 646-3028 or hotchile@nmsu.edu before the event.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com