Chile Growers Battle to Keep Crop on Track
The Tomato Magazine
LAS CRUCES – In the face of a potential onslaught
from an insect army of beet leafhoppers, New Mexico chile growers stepped
up the fight this season with extra measures to protect their fields.
“As of now, the crop looks solid,” said Stephanie Walker, a vegetable
specialist with New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service. “The
growers have taken extraordinary precautions to minimize any losses this year,
and it looks like we’re going to have a good season.”
Don Biad, co-owner of Biad Chili Co., a Las Cruces-based chile processing facility,
said, “There’s a chance the crop could come in a little on the
shy side, but it’s not as bad as it could have been if people hadn’t
followed those early warnings.”
Back in March, when the crop was being planted, growers had quite a few factors
to fret over. A steady series of winter rains had created prime conditions
in southern New Mexico for a deadly plant disease called curly top. Those showers
had germinated a bumper crop of weeds that blanketed the region, said Mark
Renz, an Extension weed specialist.
The winter of 2004-05 was the wettest in more than a century of record-keeping
in New Mexico, and over the past year, the entire state of New Mexico has seen
above-average precipitation, according to the National Weather Service’s
The problem for chile producers is that the weeds are the winter home of the
beet leafhopper, which transmits curly top virus to chile, he said. Curly top
can cut chile stands severely. If the disease hits early, the plant will die
outright. If the damage occurs later, the plant will become stunted, stiff
and yellow, and the pepper pods will not form correctly.
As a first line of defense, many farmers applied costly chemical treatments
at planting, then followed with an additional application, Walker said. “These
guys are pumping a lot of money into this crop, but if they can prevent curly
top then they should make that money back,” she said. “Many also
took extra effort to clear their fields of weeds.”
Other production techniques used to hold on to the pepper crop this season
include heavier group plantings and not thinning the crop as heavily later
in the season. If the chile plants are knocked back by disease, the goal is
to have enough plants in the field to take up the slack.
In 2001 and 2003, curly top outbreaks cut the chile crop by almost a third
on many farms in southern New Mexico.
Meanwhile, chile experts continue to see a trend in the use of highly efficient
drip irrigation systems to boost pepper yields despite the return of the rains. “We’re
seeing more and more drip,” said John White, Doña Ana County horticulture
agent with NMSU Extension.
Drip irrigation does have a high initial installation cost, but the system
also brings water and labor savings, along with better management potential,
he said. In subsurface drip irrigation, water is applied directly to the plant’s
roots through a series of black plastic lines or drip tape buried about six
In a typical furrow system, the grower is constantly stressing the chile plant
either by giving it too much water or drying it out, White said. Under a drip
irrigation system, the plant is watered frequently in small amounts and the
chile plant receives the optimal amount of water.
“Yield increases will vary with the variety and soil conditions, but it
can be substantial in a well-run system,” he
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