Chile Pepper Institute reflects the future

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By Harold Morgan

The slash of bright red peeking above a brick wall certainly will catch the eye of some drivers in west Las Cruces. It is red and it is bright.
A closer look brings something a bit magnificent. The something, a sign claims, is the world’s largest chile. At 45 feet long, it may be. Red indeed, it is.
It’s that time in New Mexico, the time of picking and processing of the vegetable that is central to our unique cuisine and perhaps to New Mexico’s very soul.
The bad news about New Mexico chile — a steady decline in acres planted — isn’t new. In 1990, nearly 30,000 acres were planted. The 2010 figure was 8,700 acres, 30 percent of the area planted 20 years ago. The 2010 crop was worth $41.6 million, not trivial in our small business state.
Some good stuff is happening in addition to the appearance of the Big Chile. Optimism showed in May when Border Foods, of Deming sold to Mizkan Americas, a subsidiary of a Japanese food manufacturer, reported the New Mexico Business Weekly.
On its website (www.borderfoodsinc.com), Border claims the title of world’s largest green chile processor and largest U.S. jalapeno processor, in addition to making Mexican foods.
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s “Get Your Fix” green chile promotion, begun in 2004, brings fresh chile to other states.
The department estimates 2,400 stores offer fresh chile. Markets include several cities in California and Texas, plus Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Nev., Portland, and Lincoln.
I know about Lincoln because my daughter lives there and has purchased and processed chile.
The fresh green chile sales enable expatriate New Mexicans to decide they have enough chile stockpiled for the coming year, a decision that seems a luxury.
Telling your friends and family about potential fresh chile availability is impossible because the department doesn’t have a list of places it has introduced chiles, much less where they are sold now.
Even if there were a list, one probably couldn’t find it on the department’s very annoying Web site (nmdaweb.nmsu.edu), but a reconstruction is nearly complete, the department says.
The Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces at New Mexico State University brings a publicly low-key approach to being the center for everything chile, perhaps in the world.
Hidden in a College of Agriculture building, the institute offers seeds, books, merchandise and memberships starting a mere $25 annually for the “basic membership.”
Business memberships range up to $2,500 and include a newsletter profile and a company link on the institute’s website (www.chilepepperinstitute.org).
The institute has a Teaching and Demonstration Garden in Las Cruces that offers more than 150 different varieties of chile from all of the main species of Capsicum, a genus including all peppers, from the mildest bell to the hottest habanero.
For those who have forgotten their mid-school biology, genus is the plant classification between family and species.
The chiles, producing now, range from the especially impressive plants that produce multi-color decorative chiles an inch long to plants with much larger pods. Capsaicin gives the chile its heat.
Some garden visitors have a spiritual experience, possibly related to the colors.
Another NMSU role is nurturing development of a crop-thinning machine now made by CEMCO of Belen.
Chile is even good for us, the institute says, helping fight all sorts of problems. The institute suggests New Mexico’s chile future.
While we grow fewer plants, we bring knowledge, technical and spiritual, and provide a central role in a world chile network that will ensure a place at the table for a long time.

Harold Morgan
© New Mexico News Services 2011