Chili crop checked by available labor

By Thomas Garcia PNT Staff Writer

Portales farmer Rick Ledbetter said labor issues and crop prices have affected just how much chili he grows.

Ledbetter, who has been growing chili for seven years, said he has six people helping with this year’s harvest of green chili, which he sells at the Farmers’ Markets in Clovis and Portales.

He said finding laborers to pick the green chili is a serious problem and the chili industry in New Mexico is in danger if a mechanized way to harvest them is not found.

“Foreign countries are putting a lot of pressure on chili growers here in New Mexico,” Ledbetter said. “They are able to use cheap labor while we are having trouble finding harvest labor here in the U.S.”

The harvesting still needs to be done by hand because there are some vines that have mature and immature chili’s on the plant, Ledbetter said.

“I know that New Mexico State University is working on a mechanized way of harvesting green chili,” Ledbetter said. “At the moment there is not a machine smart enough to know what chili is ready to be picked and which needs more time.”

Staff at NMSU has been working on developing a mechanized harvest process for several years, said Jeanine Castillo, NMSU vegetable specialist

There was a mechanized harvesting trial in Albuquerque earlier this month and another is planned in two week in Las Cruces, she said.

“Even with the trials, the estimate is about two years before that technology can be put into the farmers hands,” Castillo said.

Ledbetter is growing 10 percent green chili and 90 percent paprika chili. The green chili will be harvested until October when the paprika chili is ready for harvesting.

“I would like to grow green chili commercially but until a mechanized way of harvesting is developed I will stick with my current operation,” said Ledbetter, who started harvesting green chili the first week in August.

“About two months before we even harvest we have a lot of people asking us when is the chili going be ready,” Ledbetter said. “Everybody could use a little green in their diet, especially if that green happens to be some New Mexico grown green chili.”