After 400 years, chile's status as signature crop of New Mexico is well preserved in memories and freezers throughout the state. But the $250 million pepper processing industry that has emerged over the last 30 years faces intense international competition and weather, disease and insect problems. Every segment of the industry from red and green chile to cayenne and jalapeño production is under pressure.
In 1998, those involved with the industry reached a sobering conclusion: In five years, pepper processing in New Mexico could be history. To prevent its loss, members of NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute helped form a Chile Pepper Task Force in December 1998.
If someone wanted to bring an industry to New Mexico that was worth more than $200 million and generated exports that provide a net benefit to the state's economy, we'd pay attention, says Lou Biad, a Mesilla Valley processor and staunch task force proponent. Chile production and processing is already here, and we're a proven industry that fits with the culture, land and economy. We're worth keeping.
That conviction motivates the task force's coalition of growers, processors, crop consultants, economists, agricultural engineers, drip irrigation experts, vegetable specialists, plant breeders and mechanical harvester manufacturers.
Attending a task force meeting is like going to chile college, says Rich Phillips, a horticulturist and project manager with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.
After 15 years of domestic and international work, Phillips describes serving as the task force's first coordinator as his most diverse and challenging assignment. He has drawn inspiration from the industry-wide cooperation, regular jogging and a favorite Margaret Mead quote: Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
The task force is making sure New Mexico's chile industry is cost-effective enough to be competitive in a global marketplace. Three working groups focus on modernizing the local industry. The mechanical harvesting group is assuring that New Mexico isn't left behind in harvesting and cleaning technology. A best management practices group is drawing on farmers' wisdom and field research to find ways to improve stands and increase yields. A drip irrigation group wants to tap the technology for healthier, more productive plants.
We can compete in our varieties, our growing and our processing, explains Ed Hughs, coordinator of the task force's mechanical harvesting working group. But we can't compete in our harvesting and cleaning because of the costs of manual labor.
Hand-harvesting accounts for a whopping 40 to 60 percent of a New Mexico chile grower's production costs. Just the $1 per hour increase in the minimum wage that's been proposed is more than workers in some Third World countries earn in a day, says Biad, who regularly deals with suppliers as far away as Zimbabwe. He is a partner in Biad Chili Co., which operates three red chile dehydrating plants, and Rezolex, a paprika oleoresin extractor business that makes natural food colorings.
Though New Mexico growers and processors have faced the labor differential for years, it became an imminent threat as competition heated up in the 1990s. A prime example: Until 1995, fresh chile imports from Mexico trickled through New Mexico ports of entry in Santa Teresa and Columbus. That year, imports skyrocketed from 2,600 to 22,000 metric tons.
Two factors were the catalysts: the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Mexican peso devaluation, according to Clyde Eastman, NMSU rural sociologist emeritus. NAFTA made it easier to import, and the sharp decline in the value of the peso made it a great boon to sell the crop for dollars, Eastman says. As a result, we got a substantial increase in chile imports, which seems to be continuing for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, the state's dominance in pepper production started to decline during a decade of red-hot growth in the mid-1980s. By 1991, salsa had dethroned ketchup as the condiment of choice. Demand also increased for chile-based products such as paprika powder, food colorings, cayenne mash, frozen Mexican foods and jalapeño nacho wheels.
But as it grew from a regional to global business, the industry attracted competition from China, India, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Spain, Chile, Israel and South Africa. Between 1984 and 1994, U.S. capsicum imports increased by 85 percent, U.S. Department of Agriculture spice statistics show.
New Mexico's chile acreage peaked in 1992. As cheaper labor pulls production outside the United States, growers fear that the processing industry will follow the crop. Task force members believe mechanical harvesting and cleaning equipment is vital to their survival.
I would say the chile industry right now is at about the same place that the cotton industry was 40 or 50 years ago, says Hughs, an engineer and research leader with the USDA's Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory on the edge of the NMSU campus. It wasn't until 1960 not that long ago that more cotton was machine-harvested than hand-harvested.
For 40 years, inventors have experimented with pepper pickers. At one task force meeting, Dale Marshall, a mechanical harvesting consultant, showed his collection of 277 different machine designs from around the world.
Mechanical harvester development has been slowed by the varied shapes and sizes of peppers, from sturdy jalapeños to papery red chile pods. The crop's comparatively small acreage thousands rather than millions of acres as with cotton has kept major equipment manufacturers from plowing money into harvester research and development.
Progress has been uneven. While green chile is still picked by hand, virtually all U.S. jalapeños are machine-harvested. In the jalapeño business, with mechanical picking, the state of the art has arrived, says Marvin Clary with Border Foods, which cans green chile and jalapeños for national distribution through both retail sales and food service companies.
Growers need to know the economics of mechanical harvesting before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment. A team of NMSU Experiment Station agricultural economists, Jim Libbin, Jerry Hawkes and Rhonda Skaggs, are gathering cost and return information.
The problem with mechanical harvesting is that before I plant the crop, I've already paid for the harvest. Once you buy the machine, the money's gone, says grower Joe Nelson of Anthony, who owns a half-interest in a jalapeño harvester. After losing last year's crop, he never used the machine.
Mechanical harvesting involves every aspect of production and processing, from planting varieties that are easy to machine-pick to adding cleaning equipment to remove stalks and trash. You can maintain quality with a machine-harvested crop, but you have to work harder at it, Clary says. Over the last eight years, we've invested heavily in equipment here at the plant to allow mechanical harvesting.
Jalapeños have several advances in their favor: hardy hybrid varieties easy to machine-harvest, effective destemming equipment and a multistage cleaning process. For other pepper crops, there's an urgent need for cleaning equipment that can separate chile from branches and trash.
Using equipment donated by growers, the mechanical harvesting working group is developing a prototype cleaning station that could be used both in the field and at the processing plant. The latest design uses a new arrangement of rotating cylinders and spacing between components to separate stalks from chile.
We can remove leaves and small trash, but the problem is removing branches that are about the same length as the pod, Hughs says.
The mechanical harvesting working group is focusing on red chile, which is difficult to harvest because of weather-related changes in the pods and plant.
The ideal time to harvest is the day before frost, says Jim McClendon, owner of McClendon Pepper, a harvester manufacturing company based in Tulia, Texas. After frost, the brittle branches break off and are very hard to separate, because they're much the same weight and density as chile.
Last fall, researchers conducted a painstaking mechanical harvesting trial in Lake Arthur. Using one of McClendon's machines, they made three passes through Cecil Conklin's field of Gilroy 648 chile. Conditions were good, but not ideal, for mechanical harvesting.
To calculate harvest efficiency, the team measured the dry weight of chile taken out of the field on each run, along with the percentage of trash and unmarketable pods. They hand-harvested areas where chile remained in the field, dried the pods, weighed them and sorted them by quality. Results showed a 95 percent efficiency rate for the harvester.
Most importantly, all of the machine-harvested chile was clean enough to satisfy processors.
Marisa Wall, an NMSU postharvest physiologist, is coordinating the group's efforts to set quality standards for mechanical harvesting of red chile. It's going to require cooperation from growers and processors, she says.
Wall also is seeking consensus about the type of chile plant that breeders should develop for machine picking.
From what we've seen so far, a plant that's more upright with narrow angles between branches is easier to harvest with the double helix harvester. The plant also needs to set fruit at least 8 inches above the ground and have an open form with fruit throughout the canopy.
This year, the working group has put in a more elaborate trial in a 15-acre field owned by grower Steven Lyles north of Las Cruces.
Four different varieties of red chile will be harvested with two different types of mechanical harvesters, one from McClendon Pepper and another from Henry Rodriguez. Biad Chile Co. will provide processing. Data from the trial will provide grist for both plant breeders and economists.
Because of its potential to lower labor costs, mechanical harvesting is a top priority for the task force. But the other side of the coin involves increasing yields and profits, the mission of the best management practices group, which is taking a seed to sales look at chile production.
As crops go, chile is a fragile plant. That was easy to see in 1999, when growers plowed under poor stands or harvested fields with large skipped sections. Low soil temperatures slowed germination and strong winds battered the plants that came up. Those that survived were more vulnerable to pests. The beet curly top virus, spread by tiny leafhopper insects, caused major damage, along with familiar foes like powdery mildew and phytophthora root rot.
Chile is a good host for diseases, says Natalie Goldberg, plant pathologist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. It's vulnerable to numerous fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes. When you add them all up, probably over 100 different things could happen to chile, though not all of them necessarily happen in New Mexico.
Last June, the task force's best management practices working group sponsored a series of pest management workshops, giving growers a chance to pick the brains of researchers and Extension specialists. Growers could show us what they were talking about and hear from experts in insect, weed and disease problems who were in the field at the same time, Goldberg says. A new resource for growers, virologist Rebecca Creamer, who studies chile viruses, joined NMSU's Experiment Station in September.
Another rich source of information is experienced farmers. Sixteen of the state's top growers from southern and eastern New Mexico were chosen to share the secrets of their success as part of a best management practices project.
Among this elite group, we lost four study fields in 1999, Phillips says. But some growers harvested near-record crops of chile, even with older varieties like New Mexico 6-4.
Some of the secrets may be unearthed in farmers' fields. Bob Flynn, an agronomist based at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia, tested soil and plant tissue samples from project farms in the Pecos, Rio Grande and Uvas valleys.
Phosphorus, which promotes flowering, fruiting and a vigorous plant that can withstand cool temperatures early in the season, appears to be a key nutrient in top growers' fields. The higher the phosphorus levels, the better the crop usually was, Flynn says.
Soil salt levels also affected yields. The number of fields planted into a saline environment was a surprise, Flynn says. It's a major concern. At salt levels of 2.5 to 2.75 deciSeimens per meter, growers experience about a 15 percent yield loss. At 3.5 dS/m, yields drop by 30 percent.
When more than 10 percent of the crop fails to come up, as was common in 1999, each subsequent insect or disease problem compounds the losses. At least 50 percent of the work of growing chile is getting a good stand, Phillips says.
At the New Mexico Chile Conference in February, growers got an outside opinion about stand establishment from Tim Hartz, vegetable specialist for the University of California-Davis. Hartz was blunt in his assessment of New Mexico practices. The tradition of using cheap, untreated seed, putting it out too early, overseeding and assuming it's going to work is just rolling the dice.
Though farmers wait until soil temperatures reach 60 degrees to plant cotton, they put chile seed into the ground in mid- to late March, when temperatures are in the 50s, Hartz noted. At lower soil temperatures, pepper seed is even slower to germinate than the cotton is, he says. You're just warehousing the seed until it's warmer, under the worst possible conditions.
Hartz urged growers to use vigorous, fungicide-treated seed and to plant at the proper soil temperature. This year, NMSU researchers will document how soil temperatures and fungicide treatments affect stand establishment in a series of experiments at NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Center. Bob Bevacqua, a vegetable specialist who joined Extension in November 1999, is overseeing the research.
Sonora chile from Petoseed was planted at a rate of 4 pounds per acre. The seed was planted on March 13, 20 and 27, when soil temperatures were 54, 56 and 58 degrees, respectively. We covered the time period when most commercial chile was planted in southern New Mexico, Bevacqua says.
Seed was treated with fungicide during planting via a nozzle attachment that sprayed it and the surrounding soil. We hope the seed will be in a little cocoon of protection, Bevacqua says. The seed was planted in raised beds, capped with a temporary 4-inch cone of soil to hold in moisture.
During the season, researchers will measure stand establishment by counting plants that emerge in each plot. They will rate seedling vigor based on plants' size, strength and appearance. Goldberg will oversee disease monitoring through the season. Yield measurements will provide bottom-line information for growers.
Replacing furrows full of water with drip irrigation systems buried in the soil could give New Mexico's growers a competitive edge. We believe we know drip irrigation works, says Dino Cervantes of Cervantes Enterprises, coordinator of the drip irrigation working group. It's been proven with multiple crops and multiple systems.
Drip irrigation tape delivers precise amounts of water and fertilizer to the plant's root zone, avoiding the feast-or-famine cycle of furrow irrigation in which chile is alternately flooded and starved for water. By providing water and nutrients at the optimal rate, you get a stronger plant, Goldberg says. Healthier plants should translate into higher yields and fewer disease problems, particularly with diseases that are triggered by excessive soil moisture.
After three generations of flood-irrigated chile, Cervantes Enterprises installed a drip irrigation system six years ago on 150 acres. We've used it to grow every crop in the valley: chile, cotton, corn, lettuce, onions, forage crops and even cantaloupes, Cervantes says. Every year we use the system, we learn more about how to maximize its effectiveness and use it to greater benefit. The system has justified itself in increased productivity and reduced labor costs for irrigation.
However, converting fields from furrow to drip irrigation requires a substantial investment. Costs range from $700 to $800 per acre for a basic system to $5,000 or more for those with sophisticated controllers and sensors. Because drip irrigation tape is buried less than a foot below the surface, growers must change their tillage practices and purchase specialized equipment that can cost an additional $20,000 to $40,000.
This year, farmer Marty Franzoy, a grower for Biad Chili, will make the transition from tradition to technology. A drip irrigation system was installed on 26 acres north of Rincon as part of a task force project. Lateral lines buried 9 inches deep in the clay loam soil will irrigate plants with filtered well water. An injection system will allow Franzoy to meter the fertilizers and chemicals he puts in the irrigation water.
In terms of sophistication, this system would be a Chevy, says Bernd Maier, owner of Arid Land Technologies, which won the contract to design and install the system. It will take you where you need to go, but it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of a Cadillac.
Because it would be cost-prohibitive to install specialized monitoring and controlling equipment for 26 acres, the system can be upgraded as additional acreage is added, Maier says.
The goal of the project is to gather information about design, crop management and system operation for the benefit of other growers who are considering converting to drip irrigation. We also will collect the economic information as the basis for a cost-benefit analysis, Cervantes says. For comparison, there's a flood-irrigated field with like soil next door, growing the exact same type of chile. If the project is successful, adjoining acreage will be converted to drip irrigation.
During the growing season, the working group will conduct tours of the project as a follow-up to last fall's series of drip irrigation workshops in which experienced growers and system designers shared their expertise.
Though the task force is active in a multitude of projects, its greatest accomplishment may be the sense of unity among those in the industry.
People think of the chile industry as their own field or their own valley or their own processing plant, Ed Hughs says. But to stay alive as an industry, now we have to band together. And people are quite willing to do that.
Ninety members are betting their involvement in the task force can make a difference. They are hopeful the investments of their time, money and knowledge will yield a healthy chile industry in New Mexico.