Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - For a profoundly parched state like New Mexico, there's one agricultural bright spot in this year's extended drought: the chile is doing great.
The mild, gradually warming weather has given the state's most valuable vegetable, worth more than $200 million after processing, a rolling start. "With no disease and insect problems, southern New Mexico's chile crop looks very promising this year," said Bob Bevacqua, a vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in Las Cruces. "We're past the first hurdle."
Chile plants are most vulnerable early in the season when they're emerging from the soil, he explained. That's when the tiny seedlings are especially vulnerable to weather extremes and to disease attack.
"The stands are excellent - growing fast and making size quickly," agreed Paul Bosland, a professor and the director of Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU. "We'll just keep our fingers crossed for the rest of the summer."
New Mexico produces about 19,000 acres of chile, which includes paprika, cayenne, jalapeno, long mild and long hot pepper varieties.
Last year's fluctuating weather favored development of a deadly virus known as curly top, which cut chile stands by more than a third, Bevacqua said. The circumstances were just as troublesome in 1999 when the state's prevailing weather pattern produced cold, wet, damp soils that favored a disease called damping off. Again, almost one-third of the crop was wiped out.
The factor limiting growth this season has been an abundance of brutal windstorms, which damage fields but don't seriously cut into yields, Bevacqua said. But this year farmers in the Deming and Lordsburg area stepped forward with a novel way to protect delicate chile plants.
"They've been planting thin strips of wheat or barley between the rows of chile peppers," Bevacqua said. "The barley is planted early so it's up and established, providing a little bit of a shelter or protection from the winds to the young chile plants. Later when the chile begins to grow, the wheat and barley are removed."
A new two-year NMSU study found that newly planted chile also does better when growers mix varieties and extend planting dates over more than one day. Growers should plant early, middle and late, then diversify even further by planting a mix of varieties so that there are plants with different genetic characteristics that vary in their susceptibility to diseases, especially during germination and emergence, Bevacqua said.
In determining optimal planting dates, Bevacqua's research team evaluated three planting dates in 2000 - March 13, 20 and 27. The following year, they expanded the program to six dates - March 13, 20 and 27, and April 3, 10, 17. The studies were carried out at NMSU's Leyendecker Plant Science Center, 10 miles south of Las Cruces, and the Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces.
In the first year, the final planting on March 27 proved best. But the next year, the earliest - March 13 - produced the best stand and highest yield. "The variation came from the plants' escape from windstorms, salts and diseases," Bevacqua said.
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