Red chile farmers and processors get help from NMSU faculty

By Elizabeth Myers

The industry that brings New Mexicans one of their favorite spicy foods may become more efficient thanks to help from several departments at New Mexico State University.

Delia Valles-Rosales, assistant professor of industrial engineering, James Libbin of agricultural economics, Christopher Erickson of economics and Maria Mariani of mathematical sciences are working on a project that will optimize chile processing for farmers and processors, saving money and preventing wasted crops.

Also helping with the project are graduate students Maria Pia Beccar-Varela of mathematical sciences and Donovan Fuqua of industrial engineering.

The project began in 2005 with a grant from the New Mexico Chile Task Force.

The goal is to increase the profitability of the chile industry by finding the most efficient combination of production and harvest practices.

Some chile farms still use laborers to harvest the chile by hand, but to stay competitive many farms have switched to machines. The variation in methods has created a scheduling problem for chile processors, who dry the chile and send it to wholesalers.

The processors do not have the capacity to dry the large amounts of chile that farms send during the peak harvesting season. As a result, the farmer may be told to hold on to some of the crop until it can be processed. Chile can be stored for only 24 to 36 hours between harvesting and processing before it begins to ferment, and this can result in wasted crops and less money for the farmer as well as the processor.

“The industry was organized and built for hand harvesting,” Libbin said.

The processors also determine when farms can begin planting chile. After planting, the farmers must wait for the processor to place an order before they can begin harvesting.

The harvesting season for red chile begins in mid-September and ends around mid-January. “The mid-season is when everyone wants to harvest because the chile will already be dry, so it’s easier for the laborers to pick,” Valles said. Machine harvesting is also easier.

“Not all farms rent a machine; some use labor to pick the chiles, so it’s creating an imbalance. We’re hired to create a balance. When is the right time for the processors to collect chile from the farmers so that the farmers don’t lose money, don’t waste their chile, and they are ready to send it to the processors? What would be the right amount, when?”

Surveys were conducted among 180 farms in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas to determine transportation methods used, what type of harvesting is used, when their optimal harvest time would be compared to their current harvest time and how much crop was lost due to differences between the two times.

The three processors used by Southwestern chile farmers were also surveyed to find their processing rates, production targets, the beginning and ending of their processing season and how they determined the order of harvesting among farmers.

A discrete-time simulation model, which Fuqua and Valles worked on, was created to model the harvesting and processing season and make scheduling improvements.

Beccar-Varela calculated the distribution of the data, using it to create a histogram and other graphics. Mariani applied a mathematical model previously created for financial indices, adapting it to numerical analysis.

Erickson is working on the economical analysis and modeling of the project.

The group is also investigating how storage methods can be improved.

“Instead of building something new, we are thinking of using storage that is used in other seasons for other products such as onions,” Valles said.

“What we want is to investigate if it is possible to store the chile in there and probably make small modifications to keep it there for a couple of days, so whenever the processors need chile, the chile’s already in there and the farmers don’t need to be bothered harvesting the day that the processors want,” Valles said. “This will solve a lot of problems.”

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