When chili pepper growers and shippers talk about new varieties, they mostly mention items that register high on the Scoville heat-unit scale, such as anaheims, serranos or habaneros.
But, they also say, that’s only a part of the allure to chili peppers.
Some say it’s only a small part.
In New Mexico, most of the chili production focuses on milder varieties, said Stephanie Walker, a researcher and vegetable specialist at New Mexico State University in Los Cruces.
“Certainly, with green chili, most of the product that’s grown is very mild — most of the stuff that goes into the canning and frozen and processed is very mild, but there’s a smaller segment that is hot,” she said.
New varieties are coming into the market with varying Scoville scores, Walker said.
“We do have more and more that are fresh-market produced every year, and the heat level varies and producers will sell different heat levels,” Walker said.
The researchers’ main goal is to try to get the heat levels predictable and stable from one cultivar to another,” Walker said.
There are other components involved in research, too, Walker said.
“Of course, fresh yield is always very critical and we always try to push that up as best we can,” she said. “Thick walls are important, especially for the fresh market.”
New Mexico has been hit with drought problems over the past several years, but researchers haven’t made much headway in developing drought resistance in chili pepper varieties, Walker said.
“To get a good yield, you have to give them the amount of irrigation water that’s optimum for the plant,” she said.
New Mexico growers have dealt with drought in other ways, Walker said.
“Here, we’ve gone more and more away from the flood furrow-type irrigation. Now, the majority of green chili growers are using either drip irrigation or just there’s a few pivot growers, which is a much more efficient way, of course, to apply the water,” she said.
Walker said varieties grown in New Mexico are resilient.
“It’s a very harsh growing season, and I always feel that these extra environmental stresses really bring out the flavor in chili,” she said. “The chili plant, it stresses them out and it responds to the stress by giving us a really good crop.”
Researchers are emphasizing disease resistance in new varieties, Walker said.
One vexing problem, phytophthora, is spread by water and is endemic in areas that have been flood plains in the past, Walker said. Another challenge is in soilborne infections, she said.
Disease problems are more common in river valleys, such as the Rio Grande area, Walker said.
Growing at higher elevations common in New Mexico helps, Walker said.
Growers and shippers say most of the varieties they work with are well-established and successful.
“Obviously, there’s a tweak here and there, but basically, it’s pretty much the same,” said Bill Coombs, salesman with Arrey, N.M.-based Desert Springs Produce.