Beginning in late July, about 200 acres of New Mexico's commercial green chile crop will be harvested by a mechanical picker from Israel.
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
After more than 20 years of decline, and just as many years of effort and research to reverse that slide, New Mexico’s chile industry this year is poised for a breakthrough that could revive it and change forever the way green chile is harvested.
Beginning in late July, about 200 acres of New Mexico’s commercial green chile crop will be harvested by a mechanical picker from Israel. It will be the first time ever that mechanical harvesting will be tried on a commercial chile crop. If the test is successful, it could revolutionize the industry that’s been shrinking since its high point in 1992.
One of the partners in the mechanical picking machine effort said he believes that nearly all the state’s green chile crop could be picked mechanically in 2016. “If everything goes well this year,Chilepicker-2 everything will be fully automated in 2016. That is the reaction we are getting from all people,” Haim Oz, a partner in the Israeli chile-picking machine enterprise, told ABQ Free Press. “We’ve got the blessing of everyone, and everyone is really excited.”
Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University, has been working with the chile industry for more than a decade. “It’s huge, and it has the potential to dramatically change things,” she said of the mechanical harvester. If the test is successful, it could throw out of work hundreds of seasonal farm workers who currently pick delicate green chile pods by hand.
The green chile industry has been looking aggressively for a way to mechanize since the 1990s when production of the state’s signature cop began plummeting because of the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Walker said.
Lower labor costs in Mexico made it difficult for New Mexico producers to compete with cheaper imported chiles NAFTA allowed into the U.S. market. In 2014, just 7,700 acres of chile were harvested in the state, the lowest amount since 1971, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationally, chile production has been shrinking as well. In 2014, only 19,100 acres of chile were planted in the United States, a 45 percent decline from 2000, according to the USDA.
Chile industry officials have long said that mechanical picking could save the sector. They have been working with NMSU for nearly two decades to develop a mechanical harvester that will work with the delicate pods, which cannot be bruised or broken. Red chiles and cayenne peppers in the United States and New Mexico are picked mechanically because it doesn’t matter if they’re damaged or bruised.
Most are dried and turned into powder, Walker said. But green chiles are processed into salsas and sauces, or chopped and frozen, and can’t be damaged before they get to the processing plant, said Blake O’Hare, chile coordinator and agronomist at Bueno Foods in Albuquerque.