FARMINGTON — Hatch green chiles are beginning to arrive in Farmington, offering the first deliveries of New Mexico's famous crop.

"For New Mexicans, once they've experienced green chiles, they come back for more," said Tony Mendez, co-owner of Fresh for Less, a grocery store at 2330 E. Main St. "It's almost like an addiction. It's something you crave it, you want it."

Hatch growers began harvesting last week, "right on time," said Stephanie Walker, extension vegetable specialist for New Mexico State University.

However, the initial harvest is usually a little weak, said Mendez. Later pickings lead to a better variety of mild and extra-hot chiles.

The best green chile typically comes from late August to mid-September, Walker said. The Hatch Valley Chile Festival, Sept. 1-2, aims for the height of chile-mania.

Roasters are popping up all over the state.

"It's a complete sensory experience," Walker said. "You can drive by and smell it roasting, and that complex flavor of New Mexico green chile is something people fall in love with."

New Mexico's chile crop is only 7,000-8,000 acres, Walker said. That has fallen steeply from 34,500 acres harvested in 1992, according to the New Mexico Chile Association.

"A lot of the acreage has gone into neighboring states and Mexico," Walker said.

The green chile plant is capsicum annuum, a species closely related to tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. They suffer from many of the same diseases, including the beet curly top virus that has hurt this year's crop, Walker said.

Red chile is the same species as green chile, but growers have bred varieties that are better for one or the other. Thicker, meaty walls work well for green chile, while thinner walls are preferable for red, Walker said.

Chile growers use supplemental irrigation, so the drought has not significantly hurt them, Walker said. Dry conditions also tend to keep some of those pesky diseases at bay.

"In some ways, dry conditions help us because we get less foliar disease in dry conditions," Walker said.

"The dryness actually helps the health of the plants."

The drought, however, has decreased the quality of groundwater, making it saltier, she said.

New Mexico growers are trying to brand and publicize the state's green chile as a distinct regional product, much like Palisade peaches or Walla Walla sweet onions.

State lawmakers earlier this year passed the New Mexico Chile Advertising Act, which made it illegal to advertise chiles as New Mexico chiles unless the plants were actually grown in the state.

Mendez said his green chiles pass the test.

"It's really Hatch," he said.