Most years, James Johnson hires about 80 workers to hand thin about 600 acres of chili at the W.R. Johnson and Sons farm west of Columbus, N.M. But this year, Johnson hired only one worker for the entire crop.

“Our new mechanical chili thinner is doing the entire job as fast as the 80 workers I normally hire,” said Johnson, the farm's production manager. “I have just one person out there operating the machine.”

None of the other workers lost their jobs. Johnson reassigned them to weed other fields and harvest and package onions at the farm, a sprawling, 2,800-acre operation smack on the Mexican border near Palomas.

“We face chronic labor shortages every season because we've got several crops competing for workers,” Johnson said. “We expect the chili thinner will save us money in the long term, but in the meantime, it's already alleviating our labor problem.”

The Johnsons are the first farmers to buy the chili thinner from CEMCO, a Belen-based manufacturer that won a license from New Mexico State University to make and market the machine. It was developed by engineers with the New Mexico Chile Task Force, a coalition of scientists and industry representatives coordinated by NMSU. This is the first thinner to roll off the CEMCO production line.

“This is a major step forward in the effort to mechanize chili production,” said Rich Phillips, senior project manager for NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. “We saw the need for this machine, developed the technology, tested it and then handed it to a commercial manufacturer. Now we're concentrating on mechanizing the rest of the chili harvest.”

The task force formed in 1998 to help local growers compete with producers in Mexico and elsewhere, where workers often earn $5 per day or less, said Rhonda Skaggs, an agricultural economics professor at NMSU.

Acreage drops

Since 1992, New Mexico chili acreage has plummeted from about 34,000 acres to just 15,000, Skaggs said. Even so, the industry still contributes about $400 million annually to the local economy, including $300 million worth of peppers and processed goods and about $100 million that growers pump into local businesses for supplies and inputs.

The task force encourages growers to modernize production, including drip irrigation to save water and increase yields, Phillips said. But with labor accounting for more than 50 percent of production costs, the central focus is mechanization.

The task force is now developing a destemmer for picked peppers and a cleaner to remove twigs, leaves and other debris that harvesters collect. But the thinner is the first mechanization project to come full circle from conception to commercial production.

Designed by researchers at NMSU's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) with help from Sandia National Laboratories, the thinner uses electronic sensors that tell cutting blades which plants in the rows to cut.

“It's pulled by a tractor through fields and can be used on multiple rows simultaneously to cut plants of all sizes,” said Ryan Herbon, an M-TEC engineer.

Crop thinning is essential because growers typically plant many more seedlings than they need to compensate for adverse weather or disease. By June, plants are often too crowded for available water, light and soil and need to be thinned.

“Ideally, I want to keep chili stands thick until June to withstand the gusting winds we get in May, but by that time the workers have to tend to other crops,” Johnson said. “The thinner resolves that problem.” The machine is expensive. It cost Johnson $89,000 because he asked CEMCO to build a model large enough to thin six rows simultaneously.

Machine speed

“That's like a custom-made Ferrari,” said CEMCO president Neil Hise. “We can build cheaper models that thin just two or four rows.”

Johnson wanted a larger model to thin at least 2.5 acres per hour, a rate typically achieved with 80 workers. Next year, he expects to push the machine to 3.5 acres per hour, which would lower costs.

“We'll start saving money at 3.5 acres per hour,” Johnson said. “It's a new piece of equipment, and we're still breaking it in, so we don't want to stress it too much this first year.”

CEMCO is now helping Johnson work out kinks, such as strengthening the hydraulic system and attaching heavier bearings to absorb shock better.

“Thinning can be a violent procedure,” Hise said. “The machine plows through dirt and kicks up rocks as it goes, so we're toughening up the system.”

Hise wants the machine durable enough to last 10 years or more to make the investment worthwhile for farmers.

Formed in 1962, CEMCO builds rock crushers for mining operations worldwide. Its experience designing tough machinery helped it win the manufacturing license over about 10 competitors. The bidding process was managed by NMSU's Arrowhead Center - a private, non-profit business created by the College of Business Administration and Economics to commercialize university technology.

Hise said the thinner could be used for other crops, such as carrots and lettuce, expanding market potential. And as more orders come in, Hise expects the thinner's price to fall.

Other growers say they plan to invest in thinners.

“I'm sure we'll buy it soon,” said Rick Massey, who farms about 2,500 acres of chili and other crops with his family in Animas. “We have to go mechanical because labor's hard to come by and expensive. Basically, mechanization like this is going to keep us in the chili business.”