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International Pepper Conference to have Southwest U.S. flavor

Todd Fitchette Chile pepper seed varieties
Chile pepper seed varieties mature in a demonstration plot in southeast Arizona.
Ed Curry's farm in southeast Arizona is set to host the 2021 gathering.

From his unassuming farm in southeast Arizona Ed Curry has amassed one of the largest germ plasm collections of capsicum species in the world. His breeding and production of chile peppers is well known and is why he was set to host the International Pepper Conference earlier this year before a pandemic shut down events globally.

Curry's involvement in the chile pepper industry and his invitation to host a portion of the international event at his farm in Pearce, Ariz. led him to receive and grow about 100 different chile varieties in demonstration plots. These plots were the subject of a day-long event in late September to film some of the Curry's work, and to highlight the connection he has with Land Grant universities in his home state and the neighboring state of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Connection

Curry says his work in Arizona is at the epicenter of the long green chile pod type that is part of New Mexico's trademarked program. He also breeds other chiles that range in color, size, and pungency. The later is the term for the heat that is commonly measured in Scoville heat units. The hotter the chile, the higher the Scoville number.

Curry works closely with Stephanie Walker, Extension vegetable specialist with New Mexico State University (NMSU).

One of the efforts Walker is studying involves a single-row mechanized harvester to pick the large, green pods. Like other facets of agriculture, chile harvest relies on hand crews to pick the pods. This is growingly expensive and troublesome as the availability of crews to manually harvest crops of various types is scarce.

"Much of my research has involved mechanizing the New Mexico type green chile harvest," Walker said. "We have plots at Curry Farms with some of the genetics we've developed that work with mechanical harvest."

Several years ago NMSU purchased a single-row Etgar chile harvester. It is made by a company from Israel. Walker worked with Paul Funk, an agricultural engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Mesilla Park, NM, on several harvesters already used in red chile and paprika. The green chile pods need to be harvested intact. Another challenge with mechanization is the destemming process. This happens almost by rote with hand crews, but with machines, needs to be carefully addressed to protect the chile pods from damage prior to processing.

Through the tests by Walker and Funk, she said the Etgar double helix machine "was by far the most efficient for picking New Mexico green chile with minimal breakage and maximum yield." In a breeding trial they were able to harvest 20 tons of marketable green chile per acre.

"That was huge," she continued.

Curry's germplasm library and his enthusiasm for all things chile is spurring him to breed chile that can withstand the rigors of mechanized harvesting. Walker says this must include breeding a new plant structure with its lowest branches several inches above the surface so a machine can slide under it and harvest the fruit. This also means breeding plants with a strong main stem and fruit stems that detach easily from the plant.

According to Walker, climate and soil conditions in the neighboring states and regions are similar enough to adequately study chile pepper programs. Curry's Pearce, Ariz. farm is not far from the popular Deming and Hatch, NM chile growing region.

International Pepper Conference

Curry Farms is slated to host part of next year's International Pepper Conference, which will be split between convention-style presentations in Tucson and field day activities at Curry's Cochise County farm. That should have happened in September of this year, but the Coronavirus pandemic shut that down. Curry is the chairman of the International Pepper Conference. The event is also coordinated by Randy Norton with the University of Arizona, Ben Villalon of Texas A&M University, and Walker.

In late September Curry hosted a small field day to capture video for a virtual explanation of demonstration plots planted in various chile varieties from several seed companies. That virtual explanation was designed to give those who would have attended the IPC some insight into what will happen at next year's event and the current seed offerings available to growers.

In each of those video descriptions by Curry or Walker, flavor and pungency were referenced.

The purpose of the demonstration project was showing first-hand the efficacy of various seeds under common commercial growing practices. Curry's demonstration project is irrigated through a drip system under the same soil and climate conditions as his commercial crop, which is largely grown to produce seed for commercial growers. Though some growers continue to use furrow irrigation systems to grow chile, Walker says drip irrigation is growing in popularity.

Curry says the international event should draw upwards of 300 students, pepper breeders, scientists, and food industry professionals. Growers are always welcome at the conference, he said.

Part of Curry's mission as IPC chairman is to spark interest in funding future generations of chile pepper experts to sustain the industry. Curry says there is exciting research to suggest that the capsaicin's contained in peppers – these are one of the alkaloids in chile that creates the heat – also have health and medicinal qualities.

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