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New Mexico State University

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Researchers Couple Chile Harvester with Improved Field Cleaners

LAS CRUCES - Scientists at New Mexico State University have unveiled the second phase of a mechanical chile cleaner that removes field trash and leaves, leaving only pure peppers for processing. Experts with the New Mexico Chile Task Force believe the upgraded device is another major milestone in mechanizing New Mexico's labor-intensive chile industry.



Agricultural engineer Ed Eaton with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, fine tunes a prototype mechanical field cleaner for chile peppers. Developing the new cleaning equipment is crucial for New Mexico's chile industry to maximize efficiency by moving to widespread mechanical harvesting. (10/05/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"Mechanizing cleaning is a critical element in our overall goal of making New Mexico chile producers and processors more competitive," said task force coordinator Richard Phillips, a project manager with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "This is a giant step toward saving New Mexico's signature industry."

The task force includes processors and private research foundations, along with NMSU research and Extension scientists from several disciplines.

During the past two decades, labor cost and availability have created huge hurdles for New Mexico chile growers, so the task force's most recent efforts have been aimed at mechanizing as much of the industry as possible. Along with mechanizing field cleaners, agricultural engineers are developing mechanical chile de-stemmers and thinners.

"In combination, the three machines should reduce labor demand significantly," Phillips said.

Recent changes in U.S. trade policies have made New Mexico's chile industry vulnerable to competition from lower-priced foreign imports, he said. American producers pay considerably more for agricultural labor, and crews often are unavailable when needed.

Cleaning chile fresh from the field is no simple task because condition of the peppers changes throughout the harvesting season. Early in the season, when the plants are green and fresh, there's little field trash. Later in the harvest cycle, after the first frost, mechanical harvesters can pull in large amounts of brittle branches and leaves.

It's one reason why NMSU engineers focused the second phase of their attack on field trash by emphasizing adjustability to meet the crop's condition. "Today, we can tune these cleaners to any chile variety and harvest condition," said Ed Eaton, an Extension agricultural engineer who is leading construction and testing of the cleaners.

In NMSU's latest two-phase machine, experimental batches of machine-harvested red chile are tumbled and turned across two different prototype cleaners to remove leaves, sticks and other unwanted plant material that were harvested along with the chile pods. The experimental cleaners separate material by length and diameter.

The first cleaner, which was developed last year, moves the harvested chile across a bed of 6-inch, overlapping, square, plastic cards that rotate on parallel shafts. Card spacing on the first section of this tumble-type cleaner is adjusted so that small sticks fall through the spaces between the cards. In next section, a wider spacing between cards allows the marketable pods to drop through the cleaning bed, while sticks that are longer than pods are discarded.

This season, NMSU agricultural engineers have added a second machine, known as a Creager cleaner, which is designed to remove trash missed by the first cleaner. Made up of a series of big coils all turning in the same direction, the device sorts chile by diameter rather than length. It allows trash and sticks that are thinner than the pods to fall between the coils. The remaining peppers move across the coil bed into a storage bin for processing.

"Our initial tests indicate that, used in tandem with the card sorter, it will produce a very clean product," said Eaton, who received his doctorate in agricultural and biosystems engineering from the University of Arizona. Another plus is that the Creager cleaner may also be effective in removing leaves from fresh jalapeņo harvests, allowing growers to store more pods and less trash, he said.

Green chile and its ripened version, red chile, are among New Mexico's most popular cash crops. Last year more than 14,000 acres produced 85,000 tons of chile, mostly in the four-month span between July and October, according to the New Mexico Agricultural Statistics Service. Once picked and processed, chile is the state's most valuable vegetable, raking in more than $300 million annually.

For the remainder of the harvest season, NMSU researchers will be demonstrating the field cleaners for Southwestern producers and processors. "We'll be traveling from Wilcox, Ariz., to Seminole, Texas," Eaton said. "We want to show them that this will work." For more information, please contact Ed Eaton at (505) 640-8428 or featon@nmsu.edu.