'One of the holdups [to mechanically picking green chiles] is de-stemming' NMSU vegetable specialist
Slow Progress in Replacing Humans in N.M. Chile Fields
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
This was supposed to be the year of the big breakthrough for New Mexico’s green chile farmers, the year in which most of the commercial crop was to be picked by machines instead of humans. It was also supposed to be the year in which the industry was to reverse a 20-year decline and free itself from the need for manual labor at harvest time.
But, it didn’t happen. Only a few hundred acres of New Mexico’s commercial harvest of chile this year were picked by mechanical harvesters, the same as last year.
The problem isn’t the chile-picking machines; they work well. The roadblock is getting an automated de-stemming machine that can scale up to work on around 7,700 acres of chile fields across the state.
About 80 percent of the chile crop is sent to food processors for canning and freezing, and they demand chiles that don’t have stems. And right now, humans can de-stem chiles faster and more efficiently than machines.
“One of the holdups [to mechanically picking green chiles] is de-stemming,” said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University. “We are still trying to get a de-stemming machine scaled up. We’ve made great progress and have identified a great de-stemming machine that will work well once it is scaled up.”
The state’s chile industry has been looking for a way to mechanize since 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect and decimated the industry. Lower labor costs in Mexico made it difficult for New Mexico producers to compete with the cheaper imports that NAFTA allowed into the U.S. market.
In 1992, state farmers harvested 34,500 acres of chile. That fell to 16,200 acres in 1999, and to 7,700 acres last year.
And while mass mechanical harvesting didn’t occur this year, Walker, farmers and researchers continue to work toward the day when it will. Walker has been working to develop chile varieties that bear more fruit higher up on the plant, which would make it easier for mechanical harvesters to pick. She’s also been experimenting with putting chile plants closer together – four to six inches apart instead of the normal 10 to 12 inches.
“We have found that putting green chile plants as close as four inches apart seems to help with the mechanical harvest,” Walker said. “It looks like closer plant spacing is showing promise.”
Both Walker and the inventor of the mechanical green chile picker, Haim Oz, of Israel, had predicted that 2016 would be the year in which the commercial green chile crop was picked by machine. If that does happen in the next few years, it will put hundreds of seasonal farm workers out of jobs.
“As soon as we have a year of labor shortages, that’s when I think we will transition to machine harvesting quickly,” Walker said. “If it’s needed to pick the fields, I think growers will adopt it quickly.”