How To Pick A Pepper

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
This summer, the governors of New Mexico and Colorado got into a fight on Twitter. Words were had. Umbrage was taken. But the fight wasn’t over tax incentives or highway funding or water rights. Instead, it all boiled down to this. Colorado’s governor had the gall to insult New Mexico’s pride and joy, its chili peppers.

News Report:
“The latest war of words comes after Colorado’s governor made some insulting comments about our chili.”

News Report:
“Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis is claiming the chili in Pueblo is better than ours.”

Roman Mars:
Naturally, New Mexico’s governor had no choice but to respond in kind.

News Report:
“This morning, governor Michelle Lujan Grisham defended our precious crop on Twitter saying, if Pueblo chili were any good, it would have been on national shelves before now.”

Roman Mars:
In New Mexico, chili peppers are everywhere. Ristras of dried chilis hang from every doorway. They are prominently featured on license plates. Chili pepper cheeseburgers are part of the standard menu at McDonald’s. I can report, they are not very good. And New Mexico remains the only state in the union with an official state question, red or green?

Rose Eveleth:
It’s chili season right now in New Mexico, which means that the state’s chili pepper pride is ramped up to the next level.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Rose Eveleth, host of the ‘Flash Forward’ podcast.

Rose Eveleth:
There are chili scented candles for sale. The roads are dotted with big white signs that say, ‘Fresh chili, this way’. And every parking lot seems to have a roaster going, tumbling green and red chili peppers over a fire.

Roman Mars:
And in September 2019, on an incredibly windy day in Socorro, the New Mexico Chile Association hosted the first-ever New Mexico chili taste-off.

Rose Eveleth:
And when I asked farmers at the chili taste-off about the rivalry with Colorado, they basically just laughed.

Farmer:
“No, Colorado doesn’t scare us. Bring it on.”

Farmer:
“She asked us if we were worried about Colorado chili?”

Farmer:
“Oh, not at all. Not at all.”

Farmer:
“No. If I want to go to Colorado for something, it won’t be for chili. I might go skiing, but probably not even that.”

Roman Mars:
Amidst all this Colorado trash-talking, the organizers of the chili taste-off also crowned the Chile Queen of New Mexico.

Rose Eveleth:
June Rutherford, your Royal Chile Highness, is 95 years old. June has been in the business since she was a little girl when her father carried her around in the fields in a pepper sack. There’s even a chili pepper variety named after her, the Ms. Junie. And she wasn’t going to let a little wind stop her from talking up New Mexico chili.

June Rutherford:
“Our chili has a better taste than anywhere else, and I’m not bragging. There’s nobody. Texas, Arizona, California, and even Colorado can’t beat us. They can’t beat us. We have something that nobody’s got.”

Roman Mars:
There’s no secret ingredient to New Mexico’s chili peppers unless you count tradition. New Mexicans like June had been growing their own varieties for over a hundred years, mostly on small family farms that remained dedicated to this one beloved crop for generations.

Rose Eveleth:
But despite these growers’ pride in their peppers, all is not well in Ms. Junie’s kingdom. New Mexico’s chili may be the best in the world, but for a while now, the chili business has been in trouble.

Roman Mars:
New Mexico chili farmers have a problem, one that might soon force them to choose between tradition and technology.

Rose Eveleth:
When I started reporting this story, everybody told me I had to talk to a guy named Glen Duggins. They told me that Glen was a great, cheery, friendly guy, but when I first called him about chili, and I asked, ‘Is this Glen?’ He answered, ‘What’s left of him.’

Rose Eveleth:
“Do you ever get nostalgic about the old chili days?”

Glen Duggins:
“Yeah, I miss them. It was easy. I miss them. Help was easy. Everybody made money. We stayed drunk most of the time. We had a good time at it. It’s not near as fun anymore.”

Roman Mars:
Glen runs a chili farm called Five Star Chile in Socorro, New Mexico, and he says that every year things get a little more bleak for the business.

Rose Eveleth:
It’s not that nobody wants to buy chili. Nationwide demand for chili peppers is at an all-time high, and yet, the economics of being a chili farmer, they’re just not working out.

Glen Duggins:
“It’s been wild this year. It was bad weather, but it’s more than that. It’s like the perfect storm came together. We had bad weather, you have fewer farmers, you have fewer acres.”

Rose Eveleth:
To make matters worse, chili grown in Mexico is often trucked over the border, labeled as New Mexico chili, and sold for far cheaper than the farmers in the state can compete with. But Glen says that there’s one thing in particular that has him and other chili farmers especially worried.

Roman Mars:
Chili farmers are used to bad weather, to competition, to all that other stuff, but now, even if they had perfect weather, a perfect crop of chilis, and no competition at all, they’d still have a problem. There just aren’t enough workers to pick the peppers.

Glen Duggins:
“We hire everybody that comes up. Everybody.”

Rose Eveleth:
When I visited Glen’s farm, he had eight workers out in the field, picking chilis. He says on a good year, in the past, he would’ve had 30, mostly from Mexico.

Glen Duggins:
“They would go to one ranch house, work a few days for them. They’d feed them, take care of them, and this and that, and go to the next ranch house, and they would eventually get here. That hasn’t happened in years.”

Rose Eveleth:
10 years ago, he used to wake up in the morning, at the start of chili season, and have the 30 guys he needed just standing in his driveway.

Glen Duggins:
“They’d just show up.”

Rose Eveleth:
“At your door? They’d just knock on your door?”

Glen Duggins:
“Yeah, they know where to go.”

Rose Eveleth:
“And they’re not showing up?”

Glen Duggins:
“They’re not showing up.”

Rose Eveleth:
It’s not just Glen, and it’s not just the chili industry. Farms across the United States are reporting shortages of labor.

Roman Mars:
Since 2002, the number of immigrants coming to the United States to work in agriculture has dropped by 75%. In California, one survey found that 56% of farmers were unable to hire enough workers.

Sarah Taber:
The number of people immigrating to the US for farm labor has actually been going down since 2008 when the economy crashed here.

Rose Eveleth:
That’s Sarah Taber, a crop scientist based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and she says the great recession scrambled the familiar labor paradigm in which migrant workers would arrive in the US looking for work on farms.

Sarah Taber:
A lot of folks were like, ‘wait, I can actually do better for myself just staying home in Mexico’.

Rose Eveleth:
Increasingly, potential foreign workers are staying put in their home countries to work in places like call centers. And Sarah points out that the children of immigrants who came to the US and went into agriculture, they’re not following suit.

Sarah Taber:
The folks who already came to the US for farm labor, they’re getting older, and their kids are not going into that. They’re here to make their lives better, and they’re like, ‘please kids, don’t go into picking chilis’.

Rose Eveleth:
It’s not even that this work doesn’t pay well. It does. Farm laborers in New Mexico’s chili fields can make double the state’s minimum wage. They can make nearly twice as much picking chili as they could working at a Chili’s restaurant, but they still don’t want to do it.

Roman Mars:
In part, because picking chili peppers can be especially grueling work, even compared to other crops. Chili plants grow low to the ground, and the chilis themselves often sit close to the stem, nestled deep inside the bush. So workers have to hunch over in the hot sun to get them. All this while wearing gloves to protect their hands from the oils that give chilis their characteristic heat.

Rose Eveleth:
And green chili peppers, the kind Glen and a lot of other New Mexico chili farmers rely on, are especially hard to pick. Green chilis are just unripe red chilis, which means that the seeds inside of them aren’t ready to germinate yet. The plant doesn’t want to give its fruits up, so its stems won’t let go without a fight

Glen Duggins:
“We hire people every year, citizens here that need a job, and, ‘Oh, I can do that’. They quit by noon. It’s too hard. It’s not the money. They don’t want to stoop over and pick chili, or hoe weeds. They won’t do it. I mean, I’m not going to do it. Are you?”

Roman Mars:
In order to stay afloat, small family farms like Glen’s have been planting less and less chili every year, in favor of other, less labor-intensive crops.

Roman Mars:
In 1997, New Mexico chili farmers planted over 30,000 acres. Last year, there was only 8,400. And now, some younger farmers are opting not to plant chili at all.

Rose Eveleth:
As Glen showed me around his farm, he pointed out into the distance, where his son was driving a tractor, raking up hay.

Rose Eveleth:
“Is he going to take over, after you retire?”

Glen Duggins:
“I think. But he won’t do chili, I bet.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Why not?”

Glen Duggins:
“He sees what I go through. I go through it. What we have, we made years ago. We haven’t done anything in the last six, eight years.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Do you think it’ll ever get back to that?”

Glen Duggins:
“No.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Why not?”

Glen Duggins:
“I don’t see how. The… How?”

Roman Mars:
Glen genuinely doesn’t know the answer to that question, nor do a lot of other chili farmers.

Rose Eveleth:
But if you’ve been paying attention to almost every other industry, you might be wondering, why can’t Glen just get a machine to pick his peppers?

Roman Mars:
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a machine has replaced human hands in the field.

Rose Eveleth:
Especially, as Sarah Taber points out, in a country with abundant land and scarce labor.

Sarah Taber:
It’s always been very easy, if you are a white person in the United States, to get your own land, and as a result, you could get way more land than you could actually work yourself pretty easily. So then what do you do with it?

Rose Eveleth:
In the South, landowners cultivated more land than they could on their own through the use of slavery. After slavery was outlawed, the same landowners increasingly rented their land out, on unfair terms, to sharecroppers. And in the north, to tenant farmers, who would harvest things like grain.

Sarah Taber:
Grain used to be really, really, super labor-intensive. You had to cut it by hand, you had to dry it, stack it, thresh it, all of that stuff, that was all done by hand.

Roman Mars:
But then, in the 1880s, commercial production began on a combine harvester, a machine that could do it all at once. That’s why they call it a combine.

Rose Eveleth:
The combine harvester allowed landowners to harvest all their grain themselves, no extra help required. So they kicked all the tenant farmers off the land and kept the profits for themselves. The American agricultural industry has been busy automating things ever since.

Roman Mars:
In 1936, the first practical cotton-picking machine was demonstrated in Mississippi. That same year, a patent was filed for the first fully automatic hay baler. And in 1963, a team at UC Davis released a machine that could harvest tomatoes.

Rose Eveleth:
More recently, machines have started harvesting everything from olives, to potatoes, to carrots.

Roman Mars:
So why not chilis? Well, it turns out, it’s not easy for a machine to pick a pepper.

Stephanie Walker:
In the beginning, I was definitely, uh, the optimism of being new at it. I think I even had growers ask me… they’d go, ‘how long?’ and I think I would say, back then, ‘five years’. And I have to laugh.

Rose Eveleth:
This is Stephanie Walker, a crop scientist at New Mexico State University, who, for the past 15 years, has been leading a team working on the holy grail of chilis, figuring out a way to pluck a green chili pepper off a plant with a machine.

Roman Mars:
When Stephanie first started, automatic harvesters for ripe, ready-to-pick, red chili peppers were already in the process of being perfected, but she wanted to figure out a way to have them harvest green chili. The kind farmers like Glen rely on.

Rose Eveleth:
Stephanie says that, in those early days, she tried out a bunch of different red chili harvesters, and matched them against common varieties of green chili, but the results were disastrous. When they came up against the unripe green peppers with their tough stems and their hard-to-reach locations, it was like the machine just didn’t know what to do.

Roman Mars:
Instead of picking the peppers off the plant, the machine would literally rip up the entire plant, and try to stuff it in its mouth, like some kind of mechanical toddler choking on a toy.

Stephanie Walker:
There was one, I remember, where the plants were very, very large and bushy, and what the machine was basically doing was just tearing up the plants and shredding them.

Rose Eveleth:
Another machine they tested had the opposite problem.

Stephanie Walker:
It was a very gentle combing mechanism through the plants, so the fruit weren’t broken, but it was so gentle, we left more than 40% of the fruit out in the field.

Roman Mars:
Stephanie and her team tried machine after machine, but none of them were a match for the chili pepper.

Rose Eveleth:
The successful crop automations of the past might make you think that the chili pepper is an outlier, a stubborn holdout against two centuries of agricultural and technological progress, but in fact, chili is just one of many crops that machines still can’t harvest as well as humans, if at all. Asparagus, cherries, apples, saffron, chocolate, they’re all still harvested by hand. In many ways, automating certain crop harvests is still a lot harder than automating something like, say, a car factory.

Roman Mars:
And the reason for this is actually pretty simple. Crops are not like cars.

David Autor:
It’s very easy for a robot to install a windshield, or put the lug nuts on a wheel, or lift an engine into a chassis because each component is near identical to the component that proceeded it.

Rose Eveleth:
David Autor is an economist at MIT, who studies the interaction of technology and labor. And he says that automation works great when a machine is placed in a highly regulated, highly predictable setting, like an assembly line.

David Autor:
However, outside of that setting, in the natural world, things tend to have a lot of variety, and they tend to be rather delicate. So it is simply not the case that every heirloom tomato has the exact shape and size of every other heirloom tomato. Nor is it the case that the effort that will be required to pluck it off the vine would be identical in all cases. That’s a very challenging setting to mechanize.

Roman Mars:
If you want to automate your harvest, you can’t just find a great machine, you have to standardize your plants. In other words, you have to make your crops more like cars.

David Autor:
In agricultural mechanization, it’s not sufficient to take what the person was doing and have a machine do it. You actually have to change the way the agriculture is done, or even the nature of the crop, to be able to do that. So agricultural mechanization generally takes the form of making the crops tougher and more consistent, where they’re more like assembly line objects.

Rose Eveleth:
What that means for Stephanie, and her quest to automate chili harvests, is that even if she found the perfect machine, she would probably continue to have disastrous field tests. Unless she changed her chili.

Roman Mars:
Which is why, for the past five years, most of Stephanie’s work has been about breeding a whole new plant. One that is designed specifically to be picked by a machine.

Stephanie Walker:
We really haven’t done anything much to the machine, except for a couple of minor modifications. Most of my work has been on breeding lines.

Rose Eveleth:
Stephanie’s ideal chili plant will have to have a few key traits to make it truly machine-friendly.

Stephanie Walker:
We want a deeper, better anchor taproot on the plant.

Rose Eveleth:
The roots need to be strong, so they don’t get ripped out like they did before.

Stephanie Walker:
Above ground, we want a nice strong, single stem. We want it to grow straight up. We want the green chili fruit lying on the outside of the canopy.

Rose Eveleth:
Because if they’re nestled too deep in the canopy, the harvester can’t reach them.

Roman Mars:
And let’s not forget, they also have to taste good.

Stephanie Walker:
And of course, flavor and heat. Has to have that good flavor that the processes are looking for.

Roman Mars:
And to get a plant with all those things, to get everything on her wishlist, takes time. Especially because lots of farmers are wary of GMOs. So Stephanie isn’t using any fancy genetic editing techniques. The traditional breeding process requires rubbing flower parts together in a greenhouse, planting seeds, and waiting to see what you get, year after year.

Stephanie Walker:
A lot of what you select, that looks really good one year, does not look the same the coming season. It’s a whole lot of looking at plants, tasting chili fruit, and then starting the cycle over again.

Rose Eveleth:
But now, after 15 years of searching for the right machine, and breeding peppers that the machine can pick, Stephanie and her team have a combination that has been showing some real promise. And when I visited her in Los Lunas, it was time for a final test, to see how her special chilis would perform.

Rose Eveleth:
If this test went well, Stephanie planned to move on to the next step, and eventually start providing farmers with these new and improved seeds.

Stephanie Walker:
What we have, basically, here, is some varieties that ‘Curry Chile and Seed Company’ has developed, that we just want to see how they pick. We have a couple of standard controls, the AZ-1904, which is the most commonly-grown green chili, currently, for commercial production.

Rose Eveleth:
These standard varieties were there to serve as controls, to compare against her special strains. And in the field, I could immediately tell that not all the chili plants there were the same kind. Some were tall and skinny, with big, fat peppers. Others were short and bushy, with smaller, skinnier peppers, and at the end of the rows sat her newest machine.

Roman Mars:
Believe it or not, it’s called the Moses 1000.

Rose Eveleth:
Perhaps because it was built by a designer in Israel. Stephanie wasn’t quite sure. She was more focused on the price.

Stephanie Walker:
He gave us a bit of a deal, I think, because we’re the first.

Rose Eveleth:
How much are they?

Stephanie Walker:
We spent, I think it was about $55,000. But I think the cost’s closer to $70,000.

Rose Eveleth:
The whole thing was the size of a riding lawn mower basically, and it had a kind of teardrop shape, with the pointy bit of the tear tilted down at the ground. Inside, there were two really long metal tubes that looked like gigantic drill bits. It was attached to a tractor, whose driver maneuvered the whole setup into place. Then, a volunteer flipped a big switch. (sound of machine running)

Rose Eveleth:
The drill bits started turning, and the machine slowly began to move through the first row of peppers. A few rows later, one of Stephanie’s collaborators turns to her and said he realized why it’s called Moses.

Colleague:
“I know why it’s called Moses.”

Stephanie Walker:
“Oh yeah? Why is that?”

Colleague:
“It’s splitting the red sea.”

Stephanie Walker:
“Ah, yeah, yeah. Hey, that’s right.”

Rose Eveleth:
As it moved along, I could see the metal bits spinning, and kind of shooshing up each plant, coaxing the peppers off, and carrying them up onto two conveyor belts, and into buckets waiting to catch the chilis. In other words, Moses seemed to be working.

Colleague:
“That’s what we’re looking for, right there.”

Colleague:
“Right there. That’s what you’re looking for. See how good that is?”

Colleague:
“Perfect chilis.”

Colleague:
“Yeah.”

Colleague:
“That’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s not supposed to make the salsa in the field.”

Colleague:
“There we go. That was one of the breeding lines.”

Rose Eveleth:
In addition to not making salsa in the field, Stephanie’s breeding lines performed better than her controls, which means it wasn’t just Moses that was working so well. It was Stephanie’s special plants.

Rose Eveleth:
She’s still sifting through the data, trying to figure out exactly how efficiently it all went. But this particular combination of plant and machine might just be it, the holy grail of chilis.

Roman Mars:
Next, Stephanie will have to go through what’s called a seed increase, which means picking a whole bunch of these plants, so she can distribute the seeds to farmers. But the bigger challenge will be convincing farmers to give her seeds and machine a shot. Because even if it does taste exactly right, and the machine works perfectly, not everybody is ready to turn to automation.

Rose Eveleth:
Back at the chili taste-off, I asked some farmers if they would ever buy a chili-picking machine. Sally Baker, the owner of Genesis Gardens said no.

Rose Eveleth:
“So you would never try to invest in a machine to pick…”

Sally Baker:
“Oh no. No.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Never?”

Sally Baker:
“That’s not New Mexico, and that’s not chili.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Oh, okay. So if there was a perfect machine to pick peppers, you wouldn’t go for it.”

Sally Baker:
“Probably not. That’s part of the pleasure and the love of growing chili.”

Rose Eveleth:
Some chili farmers, like Sally, see handpicking as part of the tradition they’re trying to defend. It’s one of the things that makes it New Mexico chili. For a lot of them, the idea of bringing a machine into the field doesn’t sit right.

Roman Mars:
Back at his chili farm in Socorro, Glen Duggins was skeptical for a different reason. He just didn’t think a machine would ever work. But then again, he hadn’t seen Stephanie’s latest test.

Rose Eveleth:
“Do you want to see a video of it?”

Glen Duggins:
“Sure.”

Rose Eveleth:
“All right, so this is the machine. It goes through, and it’s got these helixes, and it goes through the plant, it just sort of shwooshes up, and the plant stays behind.”

Glen Duggins:
“Well, that’s looking pretty good, really.”

Rose Eveleth:
“Is that worth $70,000?”

Glen Duggins:
“Yeah. $70,000 is not that much labor.”

Roman Mars:
The question is, which of these reactions is the future of New Mexico’s chili? Is it Sally Baker, who won’t even consider a machine, or is it Glen Duggins, willing to try it to save his business?

Rose Eveleth:
The answer will come down to what authentic chili actually means in New Mexico. Can a pepper designed by a scientist and picked by a machine really compare to a pepper like a Ms. Junie, named after the Chile Queen, a 95-year-old, whose father used to carry her around in the fields as an infant in a chili pepper sack?

Roman Mars:
Maybe Stephanie just needs a really good branding campaign. After all, when her new line of chili comes out, she’ll have to call it something.

Rose Eveleth:
Do you have any thoughts about the name?

Stephanie Walker:
No, no. In fact, I don’t. I have some ideas that I’m not very happy with, so I’m absolutely-

Rose Eveleth:
Like what?

Stephanie Walker:
Oh, I think, we looked at Machina, but I don’t really like that. I thought about naming it after people, but I just always worry that it’s a jinx, if you name a variety after somebody, in case something goes wrong with it.

Rose Eveleth:
What about Robo Crop?

Stephanie Walker:
Robo Crop? Do you think that I would get any copyright violations for that one? Or if they sued me, it might be good publicity for the New Mexico chili industry.

Rose Eveleth:
Exactly. Exactly. Now you’re talking.

Roman Mars:
Rose Eveleth is the creator of a podcast called ‘Flash Forward’, which combines audio, drama, and deep reporting, to understand the future. Things like, how would diplomacy work if we couldn’t lie? And, what would the world look like if we banned cement? The topics are unexpected and mind-expanding, and if you’re listening to this, it’s probably right up your alley.

Credits

Production

Reporter Rose Eveleth spoke with Glen Duggins, chili farmer; Sarah Taber, a crop scientist; Stephanie Walker, a crop scientist at New Mexico State University; David Autor, an economist at MIT; Fayth Franzoy, daughter of Keith Franzoy, owner of Desert Garden in Hatch, NM; Monica Pizana, co-owner of Fresh Possibilities Chili Farm in Pena Blanca, NM; Sally Baker, grower at Genesis Gardens Homestead in Tucumcari, NM; June Rutherford, Green Chile Queen, Hatch, NM; Brad Tonnessen, senior program specialist at New Mexico State University; Bill Hoerger, former attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance. This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg

Special thanks to Sonja Shroeder, Executive Director of the New Mexico Chile Association;
Allen Van Deynze, Director of Research Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis
David Slaughter, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis;
Paul Funk, agricultural engineer at USDA Cotton Ginning Research;
Miranda Cisneros, program coordinator for The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University; and Sara Sarasohn and the UC Berkeley – 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

  1. Anna

    The pepper in question is called chile, not chili. We here in New Mexico are protective of our pepper.

  2. John

    Could a compromise be a kind of walking drone — a mechanical picker run remotely by a human? No stooping or heatstroke, but still using human expertise at spotting and grabbing? No need for new plants.

  3. Johann

    Pay the worker more or increase their working conditions are the two options I see. For example, there are these trailers where workers can lie on and have sun protection. Those are pulled over the fields. You don’t have to bend over. Used in cucumber harvest (I have seen them in Germany). You have hand-picked crops but with less hard work for the workers.

  4. Blaise

    I love this story. I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico and graduated from NMSU. I can tell you that there is no better smell in the world than roasting green chiles. As the story says, chiles are huge part of the NM culture. I hope they can automate production; an interesting twist on automation and AI taking over jobs humans don’t want

  5. Brande

    Chili is the soup-like concoction with meat and beans. Chile is the lovely spicy vegetable. It was painful to read this article with that backwards. And I’m not even from NM.

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