NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Whether it’s a labor shortage, drought, or flooding, New Mexico’s chile growers are always facing a challenge. Even disease can be added to that list.

A new effort from one university is aiming to make a type of plant disease a thing of the past.

New Mexico State University’s next chapter now looks to save the state’s famous crop, the chile, from a common disease.

“It does destroy a lot of crops if it’s not controlled,” said fungal plant pathologist at NMSU Professor Soum Sanogo.

Sanogo is leading the work behind a new $6 million federal grant that aims to research a destructive plant fungus. It’s a pathogen called Phytophthora Blight which thrives in moisture and can cause farmers to abandon their fields.

“Some cases where you have hundreds of acres of chile, and you get a huge monsoon season, it’s very difficult to drain those fields before that disease sets in. Being able to catch it before it sets in the fields is really huge for us,” said Executive Director of the New Mexico Chile Association, Travis Day.

The fungus causes chile plants to wilt, rot, and eventually die. It even affects other crops like melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins.

“This fungus has found a way to evolve like COVID. It gets variants, and it is able to survive every year,” said Sanogo.

While Sanogo mentioned New Mexico didn’t see much of it this year, the difficult disease is one they’re still hoping to eradicate under their new research. The four-year project aims to find resistance to the pathogen and create ways to detect the fungus in soil and water.

Researchers also want to create a drought-tolerant chile that will withhold water from the plant while only hurting the pathogen.

While NMSU is leading the research, they’re also collaborating with universities in Arizona, Texas, Florida, and other states to study the disease. Students will be working on the project in campus fields and at other local farms.