Writer: D'Lyn Ford
LAS CRUCES - New Mexico's chile growers can learn a valuable lesson from all those investors who flamed out in the dot-com bust: Diversify.
A new two-year New Mexico State University study found that just as with stocks, chile odds are better when growers plant a mixture of varieties and extend planting over more than one day. Planting dates are paramount in most chile farmers' thoughts now, since most will shortly be making seed selections for the upcoming growing season.
"Plant early, middle and late," said Bob Bevacqua, a vegetable specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "Then diversify even further by planting a mix of varieties so that you have plants of different genetic makeup." Plants with differing genetic characteristics vary in their susceptibility to disease, especially during germination and emergence.
All too often, raising chile in New Mexico is a feast or famine proposition, said Bevacqua, a lank 53-year-old with a soft, precise inflection that reveals his Hawaiian upbringing. Production can ride high one year and scrape the bottom the next.
"It fluctuates wildly just like the stock market, which is why producers turned to the university to help them try to stabilize production, so that it's more consistent from year to year," he said.
The NMSU study found that every year in southern New Mexico arrives with its own unique set of obstacles. Different diseases and weather patterns prevail each year. For example, a seedling disease commonly known as damping off can be avoided by planting late in the spring.
On the other hand, planting early in the season can minimize other chile diseases, such as curly top virus. Bottom line: There's simply no single best time to plant chile in southern New Mexico.
In determining optimum planting dates, Bevacqua's research team evaluated three planting dates in 2000 - Mar. 13, 20 and 27. The following year, they expanded the program to six dates - Mar. 13, 20 and 27, and Apr. 3, 10, 17. They also added a variety trial. The studies were carried out at NMSU's Leyendecker Agricultural Science Center, 10 miles south of Las Cruces, and the Fabian Garcia Research Center in Las Cruces.
The NMSU researchers planted seed in raised beds one-half inch below the surface at a rate of one seed per inch. The chile was watered using drip irrigation tape. Tensiometers were used to monitor soil moisture, and thermometers were installed in the seedbed. All plantings were thinned on May 10 and harvested on Aug. 15.
In the first year, the last planting - Mar. 27 - proved optimal. But the next year, the earliest - Mar. 13 - produced the best stand and highest yield. The variation came from the plants' escape from windstorms, salts and diseases.
Bevacqua said an example of a varied planting schedule for next year might be Mar. 13 with Sonora and New Mexico 6-4 varieties; Apr. 3 with Arizona-20 and Joe Parker varieties; and Apr. 24 with Big Jim and Arizona-8 varieties.
Another way to reduce losses associated with plant diseases is traditional crop rotation. Many soilborne diseases get into the soil and stay there, gradually becoming worse each year. That's why the Extension specialist recommends that farmers rotate their crops to avoid planting chile on the same ground year after year.
"Maybe you'll plant chile this year and the next you'll grow cotton and then corn the next year," Bevacqua said. "After a few years have elapsed, you go back to chile."
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