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Processing Hot Peppers Like Cotton:

Innovations Improve Pepper Handling

The Tomato Magazine
April 2005

By Don Comis

Ed Hughs is determined to save chili peppers and cotton for New Mexico growers. Hughs is an agricultural engineer with ARS’s Southwestern Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory near Las Cruces. Heavily grown in southern New Mexico, cotton and chili crops are important to both the state’s economy and psyche.

The chili pepper (also spelled “chile” in many parts of the country) is the state’s cultural icon. Chili peppers are to New Mexico what wine is to France. But New Mexicans had to think the unthinkable in the late 1990s as they watched global trade—freed by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—threaten to completely steal their chili pepper market. That market for red chili, green chili, jalapeño and cayenne peppers still generates more than $400 million in economic activity in the state each year.

New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and far-west Texas produce 90 percent of U.S. chilis and about a third of the country’s cotton.

Chili Task Force to the Rescue
Rather than complain about NAFTA, New Mexico agriculturalists decided they would instead seek improved technology—mainly automation—to lower costs. Hand labor is limited and expensive and not fast enough to keep up with food-processing plants at peak times. They formed the New Mexico Chile Task Force to coordinate efforts of the chili industry with researchers at New Mexico State University, ARS, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories.

Hughs serves on the task force, sometimes holding meetings at the ARS lab. Research and extension specialists, producers, processors, and plant breeders from the three major chili-growing states also participate. The members have identified as the highest priority the need for an in-the-field cleaner to remove “trash”—sticks with chili peppers. But it’s not as odd as it seems because chili peppers are one of the main crops rotated with cotton in the area. Both crops also face fierce global competition, and both crops have to be harvested and processed with as little trash mixed in as possible.

Chili pepper harvesting is at about the same stage that cotton harvesting was 50 years ago—mostly hand-picked. That proved too costly for cotton, and it’s proving too costly for chili peppers. Though growers increasingly use mechanical harvesters, they still don’t have any mechanical cleaners in the fields and have only limited ones in processing plants.

Hughs and colleagues at the ginning laboratory worked with the chili pepper task force to invent a pepper-cleaning machine. They used their experience with automated cotton ginning for the initial design. It consists of a roller table that conveys harvested chilis and trash through a series of rotating cylinders. Small sticks and leaves fall out in the first stage, the peppers exit through gaps in a later cylinder stage, and larger trash is carried away in the last cylinder stage.

“ Leaves and stems lower the market quality of peppers if there’s more than 5 percent trash,” says Hughs. “And trash degrades the color that gives red chili peppers their chief economic value as a source of a safe, natural dye.

“ In the past, hand labor had the advantage of removing all this trash, giving you pure peppers. But things have changed, and the pressures of today’s fast pace mean that hand labor is not only time-inefficient and very expensive, it’s also no guarantee of a trash-free harvest. Machines often do a better job today.”

The new mechanical cleaner might be used in the field before peppers are boxed for shipment or at the processing plant, but field cleaning would eliminate transporting of trash, and applying sticks and leaves to the soil would return nutrients.

Field cleaning would replace the minimal mechanical cleaning that now occurs before the peppers move onto a grading table where they’re sorted by hand, further separating them from any remaining trash. The automated cleaner underwent its second test with the 2004 chili pepper harvest.

Don Comis is with the Agricultural Research Service information staff. This research is part of Quality and Utilization of Agricultural Products, an ARS National Program (#306) described on the World Wide Web at http://www.nps.ars.usda.gov.

© 2005 Columbia Publishing

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