There's no mistaking the turn of season here. You see it in the deepening blue of the sky and the way the sun glows on the gaunt Organ Mountains. You feel it in gusts of cool wind riding the storms into Las Cruces from the north. Most of all you smell it--the singular, almost sweet aroma of chiles roasting. A smell all its own, each whiff, like the scent of woodsmoke in our region, signals the return of fall.
Locals began harvesting New Mexico's signature green chiles back in August, when summer gripped the Mesilla Valley and the fields all around. The picking will continue until frost as the peppers, still growing on the low, compact bushes, ripen to a jewel red.
New Mexico's Treasures
Las Cruces anchors the state's prime agricultural area, fertile with pecans, onions, alfalfa, and cotton. This land, though, draws its flavorful soul from the chile. True fans consider New Mexican chiles a virtual fifth food group. The state is recognized as the home of such sought-after selections as the 'NuMex Big Jim' and 'NuMex Joe E. Parker.' Plus, New Mexico cayennes are a prime ingredient in all Louisiana hot sauce, that slap of liquid flavor so cherished by Southerners.
Why do peppers thrive here? Foremost, the long hours of sunlight. "Peppers are suited to this high desert," says Danise Coon, program coordinator of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. "We have very sandy soil and very arid, warm temperatures. They just love the arid environment."
Danise handles the institute's day-to-day operations. She runs its center in Gerald Thomas Hall, which houses a library of
more than 800 chile-related books and magazines; contains educational displays; and sells books, posters, and seeds. She also
conducts prearranged tours of the institute's demonstration garden.