LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – Chile is a top crop in New Mexico, and researchers are working to make sure it stays that way. With new investments into research and crop programs, New Mexico is working to keep the green flowing within the state’s agriculture economy.

Tuesday, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture announced more than $500,000 in funding for seven different projects focusing on specialty crops. The idea is to enhance the competitiveness of New Mexico’s specialty crops, including chile.

“With New Mexico being the top chile pepper-producing state in the nation, we look forward to the projects furthering important crop-related research,” New Mexico Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte said in a press release. “Spearheaded by our state’s land-grant university, farmers’ marketing association and nursery and greenhouse association, projects will also address and enhance the importance of food safety, value-chain coordination and education in support of specialty crops.”

Some of the projects being funded include using scientific research to bolster New Mexico’s chile industry. For example, one project is working to overcome one challenge of trying to grow chiles beneath solar panels.

In theory, chile could be grown on the land beneath large solar panels. This idea, called agrivoltaics, would allow farmers to get two products from the same amount of land: They could grow chile and generate electricity at the same time.

One unknown that could potentially present a problem comes in the form of a virus. Curly Top Virus, which can infect chiles, beets, and a range of other broad-leaf plants, damages crops and is spread by beet leafhoppers. There seems to be some connection between how much sunlight hits a plant and how likely it is that a leafhopper will land on the plant. So, researchers at New Mexico State University (NMSU) are planning on using grant funds to run experiments to see how solar panels  and the shade they generate  might affect chile health.

Funds from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture will go to other projects as well. For example, one project will use funds to try to minimize microorganism and pathogen contamination in chiles.

NMSU Food Safety Laboratory Director Willis Fedio is inoculating red chile pods with Salmonella in a biosafety cabinet for a heat inactivation study. The results of the study will help chile drying operations demonstrate the efficacy of their drying treatments for the manufacture of safe, dried chile. (Photo courtesy of New Mexico State University).

“The NMSU Food Safety Laboratory has established procedures that can save time and money for New Mexico chile producers and processors,” Willis Fedio, the NMSU Food Safety Laboratory Director and associate professor in the Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences, said in a press release. “At present, however, the laboratory is unable to provide routine testing services to most of the chile industry, because the lab is not ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 17025 accredited. Although our laboratory procedures and standard operating procedures are sound, we need to complete the ISO 17025 accreditation process and include methods we developed for chile peppers in our scope of accreditation to better serve the chile industry.”

Overall, this year, a total of $563,843 in federal funding will support the various projects. The money is managed through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.