A Spicy Life: Farming Chile

    In order to fully understand when the different factors affecting chile begin to take effect, we interviewed several
farmers and asked them about the typical growing process of chile.  The chile pepper season begins with the farmer preparing the soil on the farm.  They create furrows and ridges and test the soil for necessary nutrients that chile plants need in order to thrive.  Two of the major nutrients needed for chile peppers to grow are nitrogen and phosphorus, which are necessary for growth and protection against disease.  The most common row width, that farmers in the area surrounding Hatch use, is 36 to 40 inches.  Many studies have shown that less space between the rows can result in a more pungent fruit, however yield will decrease dramatically.  Today farmers are more interested in the amount of yield they produce and not the overall pungency of their chile.  The more the field yields the more money the farmer will make.  Many small scale farmers would like to grow chile with a high pungency without having to sacrifice yield.  On the other hand, many farmers who sell the majority of their crops to a chile processor do not really care about the pungency, because they are interested in the yield.      
     Once the soil is prepared for planting the farmers begin to irrigate the field, making sure that the soil has enough moisture for the seed to grow.  Most farmers begin applying water to the field 5-7 weeks before they begin to plant.  The usual planting date in southwestern New Mexico is between March 1 and April 1.  After the seed is planted the temperatures should not drop below 60˚ and should not exceed 90˚.  The plant can die or the growing process will stall from a light frost or excessive heat. 

    To irrigate their crop farmers usually have to work with the amount of water that Elephant Butte Irrigation District gives them for the year.  This is what determines the irrigation cycle that the farmer will use for the crop.  The irrigation cycle is the amount of time a farmer lets pass before watering the crop again. Usually farmers flood irrigate the field and apply water at  5-7 day intervals between June and July, before the monsoon season.  They then switch to 7 or more day intervals, during monsoon season depending on rainfall amount.  If all goes well the early green chile crop will be ready for harvesting about 130 days after planting or 35-45 days after flowering.  The red chile crop will take another month to ripen before harvest.

    Many other experiments were done in Thailand that show that the total pungency amount of the medium and mild chiles increase dramatically when put under stress.  Usually mild chile will become medium chile, and medium chile will become hot chile when undergone by stress, but whenever it comes to hot chile the capsaicin amounts will show only a small amount of increase.   This helps to prove that New Mexicans are not the only people who want an answer to the ultimate question, red or green?

    Our experiment will try to determine how the pungency of chile is affected by environmental factors such as temperature and the amount of water added to the crop.  There has not been an extensive amount of research done on how the pungency of chile is affected by these environmental factors.  This lack of data proves to be a problem for our program.  The program needs a sufficient amount of input to make it work efficiently and to obtain accurate output.  Dr. Paul Bosland from New Mexico State University has been a great source of help with the direction of the research. He has been working around chile peppers all of his life and was one of the main reasons why we are still doing this project.

    Back in November we visited MA and Sons, a local chile processing plant, and spoke to its owners about our project.  We wanted to know what they thought about the project and if they had any suggestions for us on what to do with our program.  During the meeting the owners of MA and Sons told us that our project had no real world value to it because farmers relied on the seed variety to tell them how hot the chile would be.  We then managed to contact Dr. Bosland at the Chile Pepper Institute and he told us the complete opposite of what the owners of MA and Sons had told us.  He said that our project would help out a lot of farmers worldwide.    He gave us the following example;

Suppose you are a chile farmer and you have 10 acres of farm land.  You are going to plant all 10 acres of chile with a mild pungency and sell it to a local processing plant.  During the season though the temperature is very warm and you do not water the plant enough.  At the end of the season you will not have mild pungency chile, because the plants have been stressed so the chile peppers will have a medium pungency, meaning that you will actually be selling a chile heat level that the processing plant may not need or want.  So by having a computer program that can tell the farmer approximately how hot his crop is, they would benefit a lot because they would not need to use high performance liquid chromatography to determine the pungency of the chile.