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Chile challenges face industry's new organization

The coming harvest of this year's chile crop also brings a major change to the chile industry, which continues to battle competition from the rising number of imports and increased labor costs.



Ristras at the farmer's market in Downtown Las Cruces. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)


The New Mexico Chile Task Force, formed in 1998, has been replaced by the New Mexico Chile Association. The group's last official function will be the Chile Field Day on Aug. 10 at the Leyendecker Plant Sciences Research Center near the New Mexico State University campus.

"This is a private association made up of farmers and processors," said Gene Baca, association president and senior vice president for Albuquerque-based Bueno Foods. "The presence and help of the university has been invaluable, but we need to have more of a direction from the industry itself. We need to set our agenda and make sure our needs are met."



"The formation of the chile association is a definite sign of progress," said Rich Phillips, senior project manager for NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "This helps ensure sustainability and shows the industry's effectiveness when it works together."

"(The task force) was formed to address the short-term problems and begin work on the long-term solutions. This is just the next phase of the work that needs to be done to ensure the chile industry's survival."



Dino Cervantes, a founding member of the task force and general manager for Cervantes Enterprises, said the change was "the next logical step.

"I think one of the task force's greatest achievements is the communication lines that were established within the industry," he added. "Plus, a ton of research either has been done or is in progress that is vital to the industry's future."

The association will be made up of 17 members, who are processors and growers in the state. NMSU will remain a partner of the group, primarily in a research capacity.

"This was one of the first groups that worked to get competitors to sit down at the table on a regular basis to overcome the problems facing the industry. People in agriculture tend to play things close to the vest, but this opened things up," Cervantes said.

According to task force figures, chile yields bring in an estimated $400 million in revenue to the New Mexico economy every year and provide around 5,000 jobs. However, the industry could be gone in a matter of years if steps can't be taken to remain competitive with cheaper imports.

"The industry has been hurt badly, red chile in particular, by imports from India, China and Peru," Phillips said. "Most of the companies are family businesses and they have a history in the New Mexico chile industry, so they are constantly working and supporting any effort to keep the industry thriving in New Mexico. But, this is still a business. They will find the most cost effective ways to do business if something isn't done to help the industry in state."

One of the biggest achievements of the Chile Task Force was the development of a mechanical chile thinner. It is the first project to move from conception to commercial production. The first one rolled off the line last year at CEMCO, a Belen, N.M.-based manufacturer which got the license from NMSU to make and market the machine.

The thinner uses electronic sensors to determine which plants in rows need to be cut. It was developed jointly by NMSU's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center and the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. The Arrowhead Center assisted in the commercialization of the project.

There also is work ongoing on a chile destemmer and a cleaner, again aimed at cutting labor costs for farmers. A prototype of the destemmer has already been developed and testing is set to begin in August.

"In a best case scenario, it will be three years until the destemmer will be available commercially in New Mexico," Phillips said. "Other companies have tried to make a destemmer and have been unsuccessful, but right now we are optimistic about the possibilities."

Phillips added the work with the chile association is vital to goals the university is also trying to accomplish.

"This is perfect work for the university to be involved in. It fulfills the land grant mission, utilizing both our science and engineering resources," he said.

While the work continues at NMSU on research, Baca said the industry is on the right track, but there's still a lot more to do.

"The changes that need to happen will not happen on their own. If we do as we have been doing, we won't be around much longer," he added. "With strong companies and support, we'll get it done. If we don't make serious progress in the next year, we will have big problems. People don't understand that we are in danger of losing chile in New Mexico if something isn't done."