Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources / Oklahoma State University


Of peppers and politics

By Fred Causley

Horticulturist Jim Motes has worked steadily for 18 years to make
peppers, both chile peppers and paprika peppers, a viable
alternative crop for Oklahoma producers.

Horticulture professor James Motes has worked with steadfast determination for 18 years to make peppers a viable alternative crop for Oklahoma farmers. And although he has made progress toward that goal, it is somewhat ironic that it may be politics that ultimately causes many producers to start planting peppers.

To be specific, the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 has cut peanut supports about 10 percent and allows the quota to fall so that the program will be no net cost to the government.

These factors--and other provisions of the act too lengthy to mention here--will likely cause income from peanut production to fall. The result is other enterprises start to look more tempting, and in many cases, they will become a requirement to maintain profits.

OSU agricultural economists explain that the new farm bill adds significant flexibility to allow producers of other program crops--such as wheat, feed grains, or cotton--with appropriate exemptions, to raise alternative crops without losing government payments. Overall, the act could be interpreted as providing significant opportunities to consider basic changes in farming enterprises that will be more responsive to the market.

Enter peppers.

Enter not one, but two types of peppery potential--paprika, which is grown primarily as a food colorant, and chile peppers, grown for the spice industry.

Chile peppers:

Motes is quick to point out that chile peppers are used for spicy seasoning in many types of foods, not just the popular food known by the same name. It is the oil capsaicin that the peppers are grown for, and while the spice industry is the main outlet, there are many other uses.

"The oil content in the peppers we are growing is extremely high," Motes explains. "The capsaicin content is the factor by which quality in hot peppers is measured. These are super hots, with a capsaicin content up to and exceeding 100 times hotter than jalapeno peppers. It is comparable to growing a concentrated orange for orange juice production.

"Other uses include pharmaceuticals, with capsaicin being included in treatments for arthritis pain, shingles, and nail biting. It also is used as the principal chemical in mace, as animal spray repellent for nursery stock and fruit orchards, and in marine paint, in which it helps prevent barnacles from attaching to boat hulls."

Motes' hot peppers exceed the habanero pepper in oil content. While the habanero is popular for use in cooking, it can't be used with mechanical harvesting, because it drops off the plant on ripening and rots quickly.

However, the habanero was used as a parent plant for breeding the super hots, Motes explains. He has 18 years of plant breeding and cultural research in the hot peppers now, and has several lines developed that will work for Oklahoma. He says a potential variety release looks good for 1997.

"We have had cooperators growing chile peppers for several years now, with four or five this year. We couldn't move forward without our cooperators. There are between 800 and 1,000 acres planted to hot peppers now, and we seem to be getting a little more each year," Motes says.

Between 800 and 1,000 acres of hot chile peppers were planted
in Oklahoma this past season. State peanut producers are
likely candidates to grow hot peppers because they
already have crop drying equipment and
irrigation systems in place.

Motes works directly with buyers to try and benefit his Oklahoma grower/cooperators. He says getting an extraction plant in the state works out to being "sort of a chicken and egg thing." An extraction plant, he explains, would result in getting more peppers and other alternative crops produced. However, they are extensive, expensive facilities.

"The extractor plant has to run 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, to pay off. The Port of Catoosa would become important if a plant was established, because imports would be necessary to keep the plant that busy--and that would be in addition to a steady supply of domestic product.

"It is more likely that a dehydration plant would be built first for proper drying of the product, which would then be shipped out of Oklahoma for extraction. In time, with industry support and enough product, we might be able to get a plant here and add the value before it leaves the state," Motes says.

Paprika:

"There is a world shortage of paprika pepper right now due to bad weather," explains Motes, an Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station researcher with a split appointment as a Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist.

"A significant portion of the world's paprika crop, and the largest source in the U.S., is produced in New Mexico. While there is a shortage right now, the situation will eventually change. The success of peppers in Oklahoma will always be driven by demand, and by good marketing."

Motes says paprika is used in processed meats, breakfast foods, salad dressing, or anywhere that pink, orange, or red color in foods is needed. Paprika has little or no hot spicy content. Perhaps the most familiar paprika sight to consumers is as sprinkles on cottage cheese, but Motes says that only accounts for a small amount of its use.

The researcher says there are three keys to success in the production side of any type of peppers: yield, machine harvestability, and quality.

Quality, he says, must be high to compete with Old World expertise and with domestic sources. Spain is currently the largest competitor among the importers.

"We simply don't have the labor to hand-harvest," Motes explains. He says breeding to develop paprika that can be machine harvested is imperative.

"We are looking at both types of peppers for their potential as an irrigated row crop for western Oklahoma. Therefore, they would work well for established peanut growers in that area to consider as an alternative crop. They also could be considered by those who grow cotton, corn, and milo," Motes says.

He notes that paprika varieties grown in New Mexico won't work in Oklahoma, because of our warmer nights. Warmer night temperatures affect the fruit set.

Motes has been breeding paprika peppers for 15 years now, trying to beat the night temperature problem, as well as selecting for other desirable traits as he goes. He says there are several experimental lines available now that show some promise.

Motes' colleague and fellow horticulturist Brian Kahn has conducted several years of cultural studies to improve the machine harvestability of paprika in cooperation with John Solie and Richard Whitney, both researchers in OSU's Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. The OSU paprika program has now reached the point where a few trial acres have been planted on cooperating farmer's fields.

"There are only about 15 total acres out there now, which are being grown for expanded plantings," Motes concludes. "The best four strains will be selected for planting on several fields next season, provided the quality meets buyer expectations. We have to develop a quantity of product before someone in the industry can justify establishing a specialized dehydrator and, eventually, an extraction plant here."


Agriculture at OSU Fall / Winter 1996
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