In the southwestern United States, the cost of harvesting chili peppers is rising, and competitors in Mexico have the advantage of cheaper labor. Enter Nag Kodali, an inventor from Pelham, New Hampshire. He’s invented a device that could help mechanize the chili harvesting process.
At a machine shop in North Billerica, Massachusetts, Nag Kodali makes a few adjustments to his creation: a roughly twelve-foot long system of conveyor belts designed to gently remove pepper stems.
You could use a variety of metaphors to explain how the de-stemmer works, but the one Kodali prefers is the highway. Imagine two cars driving on the highway side by side at the same speed. One car is the pepper pod, the other the stem. Then the car on the right—the stem car—begins to drive down a ramp, while the other one continues on. The distance between the cars widens slowly. That’s what happens to the pod and stem. They move forward together, then the belt on the right slopes downward, removing the stem.
"Here, we're doing it cleanly," says Kodali. "Both the pod and stem are traveling at the same speed and the stem comes out cleanly. Now let's try this and see what happens."
Kodali starts up the motor. The gears stumble a bit before catching. Then he places an Anaheim pepper he bought at the grocery store on the conveyor belt. The pod and stem are caught by the belts, and then the stem separates from the pod. That’s how the industry wants it.
"When the pepper is still closed like this, the moisture still remains in the pod," he says. "They roast it, they stem it. But if you open it, a lot of that stuff is gone. So you still have the volume but the flavor maybe is not as good."
It’s a deceptively simple answer to the question southwestern farmers have been asking themselves for years: how can we mechanize a process that depends on expensive labor? Kodali says labor accounts for half the total cost of processing, and the labor market itself is aging.
"The average age of the laborer that picks the chilis on the farm is about 50 and it’s not getting any younger," he says. "And after a few years, they’re afraid that there may not be any manual labor left."
For this reason and others, many farms in New Mexico are switching to other crops. Federal data show overall chili acreage harvested across New Mexico fell last year to a 43-year low.
Kodali says pepper de-stemming labor is also a problem in India, where he’s originally from. One of his friends there says he pays 900 laborers to de-stem peppers.
"And what happens if one day some of the laborers don’t want to show up? The supply chain gets disrupted and he won’t be able to keep his promise," Kodali says.
Kodali says right now the machine is designed to handle big green chili peppers like those grown in the southwestern United States. But it can be adjusted to handle smaller Indian peppers.
Kodali is confident in the destemmer’s potential. He's putting his own money into the machine and he says he’s not looking for investors.
“Right now I do not want to spend my energy convincing others that this where they should put their money," he says. "I don’t want to do that.”
But Kodali says the machine is generating enough buzz in the southwest that he’s willing to invest even more. That’s why he’ll be flying to New Mexico to test and demonstrate the device close to the farms, where the peppers are big and fresh and the stems are firm enough to come off cleanly with a gentle, mechanical tug.
Video: Watch the de-stemmer in action