The New Mexico chile pepper industry is working to survive its challenges and thrive again through research initiatives aimed to reduce production and processing costs.

Foreign competition over the last two decades has created a sinking effect of Titanic proportions in New Mexico chile acreage. Acreage sank from 35,000 harvested acres in 1992 to 11,000 acres in 2008. Last year acreage edged higher to 12,500 acres.

The two-thirds acreage reduction is a tough loss in New Mexico, the nation’s top chile-producing state, where the spicy vegetable is the state’s signature crop.

Gene Baca, president, New Mexico Chile Association (NMCA), places the blame on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) implemented in 1994.

“That’s when the bottom fell out,” Baca said. “We went straight down.”

“Foreign countries can sell red chile cheaper than we can produce it. That’s scary,” Baca said. “Foreign companies take advantage of reduced regulations. The U.S. has more regulations in chile production, but that’s not a bad thing to ensure food safety. U.S. regulations make it more expensive to produce chile.”

About 80 percent of chile peppers consumed in the United States are imported, mostly from China, India, Peru and Mexico. China sends far more chile to the U.S. than Mexico.

The New Mexico chile industry has a broad range of initiatives in place to reduce production and processing costs to increase profitability and acreage. “We are finding solutions to our problems,” Baca told chile growers, processors, suppliers, and other industry members during the 2010 New Mexico Chile Conference in Las Cruces, N.M.

“Chile consumption is skyrocketing,” Baca explained. “The world is learning what we have known all along – once you try New Mexico chile you can’t live without it.”

Baca is senior vice president at Bueno Foods in Albuquerque, N.M.

U.S. chile growers harvested 28,500 acres of peppers in 2009, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. New Mexico ranked first (12,500 acres) followed by Texas (7,300 acres), California (5,800 acres), and Arizona (2,900 acres). California’s chile crop had the highest dollar value at $50 million.

The NMCA was formed in 2006 to succeed New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Chile Task Force, in part so the non-profit NMCA could lobby state officials for funding dollars.

“We don’t just ask for government money,” Baca explained. “Private companies have also developed equipment and solutions.”

The NMCA has successfully raised dollars to further fund research on chile varieties, pest and disease control, mechanization, and other issues.

Keys to the chile industry regaining its early 1990s advantage include developing mechanization and chile breeding to better withstand machine handling.

“Chile is great, but it’s a tough product,” Baca said. “It’s crooked, it’s straight, it’s a strange shape, and it’s notoriously difficult to find automated solutions.”

Most red chile is mechanically harvested, de-stemmed, and used for processing.

About 90 percent of the green chile crop is grown for processing. Green chile is typically picked and de-stemmed by hand which increases labor costs. Over the last few years several mechanical harvesters were developed for green chile with good results. The final push has been the development of a green chile de-stemmer.

The NMCA charged NMSU’s Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) with developing de-stemmer prototypes. After five years and a handful of prototype designs and testing, the industry has asked M-TEC to build a full-scale model of its computer-controlled, knife-blade cutter machine. The machine could be tested in the processing industry this fall.

“The chile pods are fed in a straight line into the machine where a video camera records an image of each chile,” said Ryan Herbon, M-TEC’s project leader. “A computer identifies the precise cut location on each pod and the cutter mechanism cuts off the stem.”

The M-TEC team, including Herbon, Dale Cillessen, and Eduardo Gamillo, hope to tweak the machine to achieve a 95 percent efficiency rate.

“I think this is a very doable goal,” Herbon said. “We feel confident we can get it done.”

Other tools fueling New Mexico’s path to chile resurgence include research on fertilization, plant bed fumigation, weed control, and breeding, plus discussions on the possible development of a genetically-modified chile.

“You cannot be afraid of science,” Baca said. “You have to understand chile, the genetics, and then make a decision on what works and is safe for consumers. We’re listening to consumers and criticism, but we think we need to understand the entire issue.”

Looking at long-term solutions, NMSU has raised and allocated about $200,000 for the creation of an endowed chair for chile research, reported Mark Gladden, director of development for the university’s College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences.

Baca and other industry leaders are poised to rebuild New Mexico’s chile industry as a lower-cost producer able to economically compete against foreign competition.

“We don’t want this industry to just survive,” Baca said. “We want it to thrive again.”

During a weed science presentation, NMSU weed scientist Jill Schroeder said weeds are often overlooked as a critical issue for chile growers since weeds are always present in the field. Weeds increase crop water requirements, labor needs, and disease issues.

Among the most common weeds in chile are broadleaves including spurred anoda (Anoda cristata), Wright’s groundcherry (Physalis wrightii), tall morninglory (Ipomoea purprea), and Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri).

Weeds are a problem since direct-seeded chile plants grow slowly. Schroeder says weed management alternatives are limited, including non-economical plastic mulches, mechanical cultivation and hand weeding with less than ideal success, and the limited availability of herbicides.

Herbicides are not available for broadleaf and nutsedge control during the emergence-to-thinning period.

“We’ve found even if you keep the crop weed free until thinning it still isn’t enough to prevent yield losses from broad-leaf weeds that emerge after thinning,” Schroeder said.

Late-season weeds caused a 19 percent to 76 percent chile yield loss, depending on density, in a Schroeder field trial.

Weeds serve as hosts for insects, diseases, viruses, and nematodes. Crop rotation is a successful tool to control weed-nematode pest complexes in chile.

“The more you can vary the planting and harvesting dates in a crop rotation then the more the weed life cycles are disrupted,” Schroeder said. “Growers should include competitive crops that out compete the weeds.”

In field tests from 1997-2001 Schroeder rotated alfalfa and cotton in separate fields with chile.

“The chile yield doubled after the three-year alfalfa rotation,” Schroeder explained. “The main reason was the suppression of the nutsedge-nematode pest complex.”

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com