Wilt, labor woes slicing chili yields

Heavy September rainfalls, which drenched New Mexico's heralded chili pepper crop just prior to harvest, damaged about 30 percent of the chilies due in part to higher levels of phytophthora root rot disease or chili wilt.

“The 2006 chili pepper season started fantastic but then we had one of those one-hundred year rains,” said Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist with the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service. “The crop made it through the first couple of rains but the last big rain really increased the chili wilt.

“After a series of rainfalls, the phytophthora organisms were building up in the soil. Every time it rained, flooded furrows would lead to phytophthora spores swimming to additional plants and spreading the infection. Once a chili plant is infected, there is no way to cure it,” she noted.

Pepper fields in eastern New Mexico suffered less damage. While hail caused some injury near Deming on the west side, the central growing region was hit the worst including the area around Hatch, the proclaimed chili pepper capital of the world.

“Growers were doing a great job keeping fields drained. But the last wave really hurt them. Every field was affected but some fields have been devastated by chili wilt,” Walker said.

An early drop in temperatures added insult to injury. “Normally red chilies would be drying down in the field for processing. The chilies are still very succulent. So while red chili processors are trying to start dehydration now, they are having problems because the pods are too wet.”

Beet curly top virus has stunted plants to reduce or eliminate pepper growth. Transmitted by the beet leafhopper, the disease causes leaves to turn yellow, curl upward, twist and pucker. The roots eventually die.

“The problem with curly top is that the leafhopper can land on the leaf,” said John White, Extension agent with the NMSU CES. “The first thing he does is stick his mouth part in the leaf. He might die a second later from insecticide but he has injected the viral toxin.”

Leafhopper numbers can grow quickly on summer weeds and survive on winter annual weeds such as mustards. While integrated pest management has been successful in pest and disease fights, Walker said systemic insecticides like Admire, Platinum and Platinum Ridomil Gold have allowed growers to reduce leafhopper populations to save the crop. Some growers salvaged their crop with insecticides but it was spotty. Some areas were simply overwhelmed by leafhopper populations, Walker said.

“We also had luck with Surround, an organically approved kaolin clay suspension product sprayed on the foliage,” she said. It looks like powder and makes the plant appear whitewashed. Preliminary research shows leafhoppers recoil from the strange-looking chili plant.

“Surround must be applied frequently because rain washes it off,” Walker said. “As the growing plant creates new foliage, reapplication is required. The product is very labor intensive but seems to be effective.”

While 80 percent of red chilies are machine harvested, the green and cayenne crops are 100 percent hand-harvested. Growers are experiencing a 40 percent to 50 percent labor shortfall this harvest season, Walker said.

“Even current insufficient levels of labor probably cut about 25 percent off growers' profits. As to the full impact the labor shortage will have, it's too early to tell,” she said. “Many growers who were not able to pick their green crop will try to find a home for the chili as a red crop. Because of the impact of chili wilt on the red crop, many of these growers may be able to find a buyer for their red chili.”

Walker said some chilies would not be picked because of the labor shortage. Continuing labor supply frustrations and other issues cause some growers to ponder an exit from the chili industry, possibly to cotton that is 100 percent mechanized. Others are looking at pecans and alfalfa.

At times referred to as the “chili lady,” Walker's family roots are not buried in agriculture — her father was a physicist. Her research efforts stretch across several acres of NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Center in Las Cruces. Her current doctorate dissertation work is focused on developing improved chili varieties that harvest more efficiently by machine — efforts to further negate the need for hand laborers. She's even toyed with mechanization for green chilies.

In recent years, a chili taskforce comprised of industry leaders, growers and university personnel has focused on furthering improvements in red chili harvesters and creating a machine to pick green chilies and cayennes. The group has endorsed Walker's breeding research.

In 2005, New Mexico's chili pepper industry included 17,000-planted acres of which 16,200 were harvested, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Chili production value was pegged at $46.9 million. New Mexico chili production 20 years ago covered 35,000 acres. According to White and Walker, New Mexico's major chili producing counties include Luna, Hidalgo, Dona Ana and Chavis.

In a normal year, each acre yields 22 tons to 24 tons of green chilies (about two pickings) and 3,000 to 3,500 dry pounds for red chilies. New Mexico acreage breaks down to 40 percent for red chilies, 30 percent for green and 30 percent for cayenne.

The green chili harvest ends with the first freeze. The red harvest can continue into January.

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