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NMSU institute hot on peppers

LAS CRUCES – It’s not all about developing the hottest pepper in the world, although the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University has plenty of hot stuff on hand if you want to give it a try.

These NuMex Sandia Select chiles are a Sandia variety that can be used as both red and green chiles. The strain was developed by NMSU's Chile Pepper Institute.A stunted chile plant in the Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces displays effects of a virus. (Courtesy of NMSU)

These NuMex Sandia Select chiles are a Sandia variety that can be used as both red and green chiles. The strain was developed by NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute. (Courtesy of NMSU)

The work done there is more about helping producers bring the best New Mexican varieties from the field to the table, said Danise Coon, program coordinator and research specialist for the organization that brought the world such tongue-searing as the infamous Bhut Jolokia, which weighs in at 1 million Scoville units and the devilish Trinidad Scorpion, which doubles the heat level and is currently the world’s hottest pepper.

For Coon and others at the institute, diseases such as curly top and chile wilt are a more pressing problem because they impede the production of the state’s favorite crop. And our state vegetable is big business.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 77,780 tons of New Mexico chile were harvested with a value of $65,412,980 in 2012, the last year for which total sales were available.

Digging in

Research at the institute continues to battle Phytophthora, or chile wilt, and curly top to ensure the local growers have the latest research-based science to combat diseases to protect their crops and maximize yield.

One of the primary goals of the institute’s research is to develop more hybrids that resist disease, increase production and produce the best flavors and heat levels for different palates.

A stunted chile plant in the Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces displays effects of a virus.

A stunted chile plant in the Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces displays effects of a virus.

One example, Coon said, is the NuMex Sandia Select variety, which was developed about nine years ago at the request of growers. It has become one of the more popular varieties among growers and, through the institute’s work, serves as a strong producer of red and green chile.

Sometimes, the work is about bringing back varieties that have “drifted” from their original flavors over years of production, said Paul Bosland, director of the institute.

The New Mexico 6-4 Heritage chile pepper was developed around 1998 from a seed bank of the original New Mexico 6-4. The original NM 6-4, which was released in 1957, had “run out,” meaning that after so many years of commercial growing, it had lost much of its flavor and aroma, and had increased its variability in heat levels, maturity date and yield.

In 1998, Bosland, along with NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute and Biad Chili, used seeds from the original NM 6-4 that had been frozen in a storage lab to create a new line of chile. Bosland grew the peppers for three years, perfecting the line by selecting for more flavor and improved yield.

“Producers asked ‘could we bring back the traditional flavor?'” Bosland said. “That’s a tradition around the world – going back to heirloom varieties.

New discoveries

While the institute hasn’t turned out another super-hot variety, an unexpected experience did lead to researchers determining what makes the super-hots, well, super hot.

A cable television show came to do a story on the Bhut Jolokia and the cameraman had Coon cut into several of the peppers to illustrate the show.

“I kept noticing shiny vesicles on the pod,” she said. “We assumed the capsaicin was only in the veins. But the super-hot varieties changed to make it on the walls” of the chile.

Meanwhile, work continues to perfect the state’s perfect food. “Everything we do here is for the producers,” Coon said.

Coming up

Again this year, the institute will host the New Mexico Chile Conference. It is scheduled for Feb. 2-3 at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces.

Featured speakers include Jeffrey Mitchell, of the University of California-Davis, who will speak on cover crops and strip tilling. It will also offer producers a look a the latest research solutions for disease and pest management as well as updates on mechanization.

For information on the conference, or to support the institute as a sponsor, visit chilepepperinstitute.com, call 575-646-3028 or visit the institute’s gift shop on campus.

Ornamental varieties developed at the institute will be shown and sold at the National Firey Foods and Barbecue expo in Albuquerque March 6-8. To learn more about that event, visit www.fieryfoodsshow.com.

 

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