Chilli is among the most popular vegetables world over. It is highly famed for its colour, flavour, spice and nutritional value. In addition, chilli is relatively easy to grow, does not require a heavy financial investment, thus farmers find it highly rewarding. However, a reasonable number of farmers involved in chilli farming still struggle to achieve higher yields due to inappropriate chilli harvesting techniques.  For this reason, there is need for farmers to fully understand proper practises of harvesting chilli. This will enable them to meet their ultimate goal of producing a bumper harvest of superior quality.

Harvesting Time

Chilli harvesting is carried out approximately 13 to 16 weeks after transplanting when it is ripe. This varies according to different seed varieties, climatic conditions and soil properties including fertility. Chilli can be harvested before it is fully mature. The exact time frame for harvesting chilli relies on its purpose and general preference of the farmer. The following are different stages in which chilli harvesting can be carried out:

  • Green: crops are developed yet still green.
  • Colour breakage: crops are not yet in their genetic colour but colouring has begun. Some portion is still green and some is pink/red.
  • Ripe: the crops are mostly red and beginning to soften. Crops picked at this stage are often used for food processing.
  • Fully ripe: the crops have developed maximum colour and turned red.

Chilli harvesting is done at different intervals which usually depends on the weather. Ripe chilli is normally picked at 5 to 6 days intervals, whereas green chilli at about 8 to 10 intervals. Note that chilli varieties are non-climacteric; chilli harvested unripe has no capacity to complete the ripening process unless the available post harvesting conditions are favourable.

Harvesting methods

Harvesting chilli can be done manually or mechanically with the use of different combine harvesters. Mechanical chilli harvesting is not advisable as machinery can cause harm to the crops. However, mechanically harvested crops can be used for food processing.  Chilli should ideally be harvested by hand. This involves removing it from the branch making sure that the stem remains unbroken and attached to the fruit. Another way of harvesting chilli involves twisting from the stem. Take care not to pull the fruit from veins as this might damage the crop. When harvesting chilli, select those with the desired characteristics and leave the rest in the field. Overripe chilli should be removed and placed aside for processing. The harvested chilli should be kept away from harsh weather conditions such as direct sunlight as it can result in the development of white patches. Crops are collected using cotton waist bags, plastic field crates and plastic buckets. Individuals harvesting chilli must wear gloves because the capsaicin in chilli can cause burns. Crops should be cleaned soon after harvesting. They must be washed in fresh, clean water or sanitized with chlorine.

Drying Chilli

Similar to most stored crops, proper drying is an important aspect of harvesting chilli. Chilli is often harvested with moisture content of 65% to 80% or generally while still succulent, hence the need for drying. Chilli should be dried until it reaches 8% to 10% moisture level in order to prevent microbial activity and aflatoxin production. The sun drying method involves spreading out chilli on dry ground in the sun soon after harvest. The chilli is frequently stirred so that it can dry out evenly thereby preventing discolouration and mould. This method of drying usually lasts about 10 to 15days. For this reason, it is not recommended. The product is left out in the open for a prolonged period of time exposing it to contamination. Also, sun dried chilli normally records 30% to 40% losses in yield.  Mechanical methods include using air blown driers with a temperature range of 44oC to 46oC. Drying using this method only lasts for 18hours producing superior quality chilli. Solar driers can also be used. These take about 4 to 5 days to complete the task, also producing exceptional quality chilli.

Grading and Packaging

Grading chilli is an easy task. It involves sorting according to shape, size, and colour typical of the variety. Graded chilli must be assigned to a particular class. Defected crops are then removed from the batch. Defects are categorised as crops that are cracked, dull looking, decayed, and mechanically damaged; also those affected by sunburn, soft as well as undersized crops.  When packaging chilli, make sure that it is free from dirt, microbial infection and insect infestation. Grading is usually done by hand, on a table or on a moving conveyer belt. Farmers should be familiar with established standards so as to grade the products appropriately. Chilli should be packaged soon after grading. Plastic crates are recommended as they offer better protection against physical injuries than other containers due to their smooth surface, rigidity, and ease in handling.

Storage

Storage is also an important part of harvesting chilli. Chilli must be properly stored to avoid infestation. It should ideally be stored in cold storages with a temperature range of 10oC. Chilli stored in these conditions can last between 8 to 10 months in storage. Temperatures below this range may cause damage, for example surface pitting, decay and decolouration of the seed cavity. Chilli stored in temperatures above 13oC is subject to accelerated ripening and bacterial soft rot infection. Chilli should be placed approximately 50 to 60cm away from the wall. In addition, it should not be stored close to ethylene producing products such as bananas, avocadoes and melons. It is important to frequently visit the storage facility to make sure that fruits are in still desired physical conditions. Take care that insects and rodents do not have access to the storage facility.

Yield

An average chilli yield is about 2.5 to 3 tonnes per acre under flood irrigation, and 3 to 3.5 tonnes per acre under drip irrigation. A yield which is produced without using any irrigation techniques can be approximately 1.2 tonnes per acre. Note that overall yields depend on various factors including farming practises, climate, soil properties and harvesting techniques.

The quality and quantity of the chilli harvest is heavily reliant on harvesting time, storage facilities and handling among other factors. Chilli harvesting therefore demands skill and precision during the entire harvesting process. Failure to comply leads to mistakes resulting in loss of yield, hence very low profit margins. For this reason, farmers should focus of improving their skill and knowhow in order to achieve maximum harvest.