Labor availability persists as a problem for chili pepper growers and shippers, as elsewhere in the produce industry, and researchers are attempting to do something about it.

They’re looking into mechanical harvesting at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

Stephanie Walker, a vegetable specialist at the university, is heading up research into mechanical harvesting methods.

It has been tried in New Mexico’s onion industry, with limited — some in that industry say too limited — success, because of the delicate nature of onions bound for the fresh market.

Currently, all chili peppers in New Mexico are hand-harvested, and that’s not bound to change for awhile, Walker said.

To mechanically harvest peppers successfully, the crop needs a determinant fruit set on the plants, Walker said.

“We need easy destemming,” she said. “For processing, we need to remove the stems by hand or eventually by machine.”

A more determinant fruit stand means plants are mature and consistent in shape and size at the same time, and they grow vertically, Walker said.

“We want to come up, set the fruit, be able to harvest it once or twice at the most and plow the field for the next crop,” she said.

Developing a reliable mechanical harvesting system is becoming a priority, with labor problems persisting, Walker said.

“It’s a matter of cost and availability of labor,” she said.

“We have a lot of years where the growers can’t get enough labor to pick the crop, no matter what they’re paying,” Walker said.

Onion growers tried mechanical harvesting, only to find the machines damaged the product and compromised its appearance and created quality issues. Few harvest their onions that way now, as a result.

Walker said such a system can pose a hazard for crops such as onions.

“A lot of the onions go to the fresh market, and they can’t take the damage from a harvester,” Walker said.

“It’s going to cut down on their shelf life, it beats them up and it’s challenging. People buying produce don’t want to see any dings or dents on their fresh fruits or vegetables.”


Sturdy peppers

However, Walker said a mechanical system for peppers not only is realistic, it’s likely in the next few years.

“We’ve certainly made strides in testing different equipment,” she said.

“Some of the engineers here on campus have put a lot of work into a mechanical destemmer.”

A number of companies have contributed research and development efforts into mechanical destemmers, Walker said.

“We’re actually in the process of acquiring a one-row small-plot machine harvester for trials here (on university test plots),” Walker said.

Chris Franzoy, owner of Young Guns Produce in Hatch, said he’d like to see mechanical harvesting for chili peppers, but he also said he wasn’t sure how practical such a system would be.

“I know they’re already mechanically harvesting red peppers but, to date, we have not seen a machine that will harvest the green chilies.”

If researchers are successful and a mechanical harvesting system could come along, it would be an asset, said Bill Coombs, salesman with Arrey, N.M.-based grower-shipper Desert Springs Produce.

“Labor is always an issue. I mean, I’d think you’d have to look at that,” he said.

For now, though, standard hand labor is all that’s available, Coombs said.

“Right now, we have to load them in plastic bins and haul them into the shed and pack them on a grading table,” he said.