Mechanized chili harvesting could ensure future of New Mexico’s signature crop

Mechanized chili harvesting could ensure future of New Mexico’s signature crop

By: By MELANIE DABOVICH Associated Press Writer

LAKE ARTHUR, N.M. (AP) — Workers no longer stoop over to hand-pick the red chili crop on Cecil Conklin’s farm. They drive a mechanical harvester that plows through row after row of chili plants, methodically pulling off the peppers.
“The machine harvests about seven acres a day,” said Conklin, one of the first farmers in New Mexico to make the switch to mechanical harvesting more than a decade ago. “That’s about the same acreage that it took 40-50 workers to pick each day before we had the machine.
Mechanization “was forced on us — we couldn’t find the labor. Now, chili definitely has to be mechanically harvested in order for farmers to make money,” he said.
Increased market pressure from foreign chili imports, declining prices and lack of labor have made it tough for chili farmers to thrive. Using machines to harvest the state’s signature crop is the only way the $400 million chili industry can stay competitive, said Terry Crawford, professor of agriculture business and economics at New Mexico State University.
“Time is critical. New Mexico has no more than five years to get competitive,” Crawford said. “We have to become more efficient and cut labor costs significantly.”
In New Mexico, more than 80 percent of the red chili crop is mechanically harvested, mainly in the southeastern part of the state. The harvest method also is being used increasingly by red chili growers in west Texas and southeast Arizona.
Stephanie Walker, vegetable specialist with NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service, said many chili farmers in eastern New Mexico found the transition to mechanical harvesting a little easier than those in the Rio Grande Valley corridor because they could rely on their knowledge from growing other mechanically harvested crops.
“Many of those farmers previously grew cotton and they knew how to machine harvest a crop. They used that expertise to make the chili harvest work, and they already knew how to harvest without large pools of labor,” Walker said.
Foreign competition also is driving the change to mechanical harvesting, as farmers try desperately to compete with chili importers — such as China, India and Peru — that pay significantly lower wages.
“Here in the U.S., we pay an estimated $50 to $60 a day or better. Compare that to China, where workers are paid around $2 to $3 a day,” Crawford said. “We’re still in the early stages, but our hope is that mechanical harvesting can cut labor costs in half.”
One downside of mechanical harvesting is a reduced crop yield. Hand pickers can grab chili not only on the actual plants, but also the peppers that have fallen to the ground.
Also, farms using mechanical harvesting only get one harvest a season, whereas hand-picked crops can have two or three picks because the plants aren’t stripped of leaves and can produce more peppers, Crawford said.
Switching to mechanical harvesting is not cheap. Conklin said he paid $100,000 for his machine, but it now costs twice that amount.
The most common types of mechanical chili harvesters strip peppers from the plants and drop them onto a conveyor belt, which then transports the peppers to a holding container. Unwanted parts of the plant, such as leaves and branches, are gathered with the chili peppers. The pods must be separated from the unwanted parts either at the farm or at a processing plant.
Just as farmers are making investments to begin mechanical harvesting, processors have had to make similar expenditures to keep up with the changes in harvesting methods.
About 75 to 80 percent of chili that arrives at Rezolex Ltd. Co. processing plant is machine harvested, said Lou Biad, who operates the family owned business.
Biad said the 50-year-old company has gradually invested tens of thousands of dollars to accommodate mechanically harvested crops. Without the harvest method, the company would have a hard time meeting its supply needs.
“Mechanical harvesting is here — it’s just not perfected. We’re in the Model T stage, but with time and money and expertise, we could make it a Mercedes Benz,” said Biad, who also serves as secretary of the New Mexico Chile Association and has lobbied for additional funding for the chili industry.
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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Farm implement dealers are predicting a banner year, helped by a surge in commodity prices and crop production.
“Most of us are pretty much sold out of equipment right now,” said Marc Taylor, owner of Northern Plains Equipment Co. in Mandan. “The first half of 2007 bit us a little bit because of the drought, but it picked up in the past six months.”
Bill Scoville, the owner of LaMoure Equipment and Ellendale Implement, said new combines, which can cost much more than $300,000, have been rolling off dealers’ lots.
“It’s going to be a better year than last year,” he said. “The majority of farmers who have been coming in are buying — we don’t have that many tire-kickers.”
Canadians, with their increasingly stronger dollar, are buying up much of the used equipment in North Dakota, dealers say.
“Most dealers, in general, are up this year and I would say the majority of dealers’ new stuff is sold,” Scoville said. “Most manufactures have sold a lot more new stuff than they ever have. I guess most manufacturers now are producing everything they can.”
North Dakota has about 130 implement dealers statewide, said Robert Lamp, president of the North Dakota Implement Dealers Association.
When farmers do well, farm machinery dealers benefit, he said.
“I would say it been one of the better years we’ve had in the past decade,” Lamp said. “Good crops, for the most part, and great commodity prices translated in more and better equipment and that’s good for our dealers.”
Farm machinery manufacturers appear to be starting 2008 with optimism, said Paula Kaster, president of the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Association in Shelbyville, Ind.
Kaster, who has worked in the industry for about 25 years, said attendance is up at events that feature farm machinery.
“Attendance at trade shows has been better than in past years,” Kaster said. “Our economy can be gauged by the attendance at the farm shows — and the scuttlebutt in the halls is things are looking good.”
Published in The Messenger 1.8.08

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