Producers of Piquant Pods of Perfection

Most chileheads have absolutely no concept of what's involved in producing the peppers they crave so dearly. They go to the market and find an incredible selection of fresh and dried chiles, multitudes of different hot sauces, and salsas of every sort. Many are shipped in from far-flung locales, but there are several growers here in the center of the state that love producing those piquant pods of perfection, those capsules of capsaicin, that our brains and appetites demand. We will profile some of these growers, but first we should understand the craving a little better.

Marianne Simmons of Onion Creek Farms

Marianne Simmons of Onion Creek Farms
photograph by John Anderson

We may not even realize why we love the hot stuff as much as we do. The conscious reasons are that we adore the taste, flavor, smell, and aroma of spicy foods -- it's genetically ingrained in folks from the Lone Star State. And there is always the sense of danger and bravado. The most foolhardy of us try to impress our friends with our ability to tolerate the extra spicy. But subconsciously, there is much more going on. ...

One reason spicy food is wildly popular in hot climates is because physiologically it raises our rate of heartbeats and causes us to perspire. Sweat then evaporates, creating a mini-air conditioner around our bodies. We don't realize it, but we are actually trying to cool off by consuming chiles.

Capsaicin is the fiery chemical ingredient found in chiles, the one that gives them their zip. Capsaicin triggers our brains to produce endorphins, which are addictive natural painkillers that promote a sense of well-being and mild stimulation. Our brains hold our bodies and appetites hostage, demanding more and more of the pleasurably piquant food. Set a bowl of salsa and some chips in front of us, and a Pavlovian response occurs. The drool begins and the arm involuntarily responds, aiming the first salsa salvo directly at the mouth.

Pepper plants love heat, a long growing season, and alkaline soil, and Central Texas is blessed with all three. We're also blessed with a spate of farmers who understand the intricacies of pepper production, and without them we would be lost -- our brains would divorce us or force us to consume the dreaded imported hot stuff from places like New Mexico or California. Like fine wines, peppers don't travel very well. They are easily bruised and broken, they don't like to be too hot or cold in transport, and, to get the best flavor, they must be picked at the peak of perfection and ripeness. These factors dictate the importance of buying locally for the best chile flavor.

Boggy Creek Farms, Austin

When asked about the vagaries of hotness in peppers, Larry Butler of Boggy Creek Farms describes chiles as "a real funny animal. You can have a lot of variation on a single plant -- even peppers on a single branch can be different. I think the heat of late summer stresses the plants to condense the heat, and it also condenses the flavor. Most folks go for the heat, but I really like the flavor behind the heat."

Boggy Creek Farms (3414 Lyons, 926-4650) is nestled in a surprisingly bucolic setting, deep in the heart of East Austin. The five acres that Butler and his partner Carol Ann Sayle farm there are blessed with beautiful bottom land on the flood plain of what used to be Boggy Creek, before the city poured concrete to control flooding and turned it into a giant skateboard ramp. They also have a four-acre farm in Milam County and between the two have one full acre of peppers in production.

"They're a good money crop, with lots of demand," Butler says. "And this year we're trying something new. We take our surplus chiles and Roma tomatoes and smoke-dry them in a smokehouse fired with post oak. It takes three to five days, but it allows us to preserve the harvest ... and damn, they taste good. Then we take the smoked chiles and tomatoes and blend them with olive oil, homemade organic tomato juice, garlic, and vinegar, and make some of the best salsa you ever put in your mouth. And it's organic. In the down times, like now, when it's 100 degrees every day and hasn't rained in a month, the garden slows down a little, but it gives us another product to sell at the stand."

Inside the turn-of-the-century farmhouse, Butler popped open a five-gallon bucket of smoked chiles for me to smell. The aroma was heavenly -- the savory spice of chiles mixed with the oaken smell of smoke. And it carries over into the bottled salsa. I wanted to dive in and immerse myself in that scent. I finished my 12oz bottle in one sitting, and many tostadas sacrificed their lives, though not in vain.

Butler and Sayle make three degrees of hot sauce, from mild to hot, and they are packing a sweet Costa Rican pepper (that has also been smoke-dried) in olive oil and selling jars of them. Plans for the future include grinding the smoked chiles to produce a smoky powdered chile and a smoked tomato powder as well. They also produce a Gato Malo salsa made with fresh chiles, several varieties of peppers packed in vinegar, and a tomato-pepper oil.

Butler and Sayle are growing 10 varieties of peppers this year, and the most prolific have been habanero, Thai dragon, Costa Rican sweet, and the big chile Anaheim. Unlike tomatoes, which must be planted in the spring and the late summer, the peppers go in the ground the day after Easter, one planting per year. "The biggest problem growing these darned things," Larry drawls, "is sunscald, especially this time of the year. Up in Milam, we have some problems with feral hogs tearing up the plants, and we battle the birds over the peppers, but sunscald is the biggest problem. No matter how much water we drip irrigate with, the plants wilt in the hottest part of the day. When the leaves droop, it exposes the fruit to the sun, and it just fries them. What I've been doing is cutting the plants back by about two-thirds. They skate through the heat, then explode with blooms and fruit in the fall."

Gary and Sarah Rowland of Hairston Creek Farms

Gary and Sarah Rowland of Hairston Creek Farms
photograph by John Anderson

The Boggy Creekers are firm believers in the organic method and "eating seasonally and locally." They have a stand at the farm that is open Wednesdays, 9am-1pm, and Saturdays, 9am-2pm, and several restaurants come out to buy fresh produce, including Jean Luc's, Brio Vista, and the Barr Mansion. Larry and Carol Ann have a loyal following of shoppers who show up weekly for the fresh organic produce, the eggs, the goat cheese, and, of course, the pepper products.

Onion Creek Farms, Dripping Springs

Marianne Simmons and ex-husband Steve Sprinkle ran the famous Craftsman Farm from 1991 through 1997. Sprinkle departed, and now Simmons continues the fine tradition as Onion Creek Farms (one mile south of 290W at Dripping Springs, 858-1090). It's situated on the banks of Onion Creek, off Hays County Road 190 (one of the prettiest drives in the Hill Country). Simmons is blessed with 20 acres of deep, rich, alluvial soil from the floodplain of Onion Creek, nestled in the rolling hardscrabble limestone hills and live oaks. She farms three acres with the intensive organic method and devotes about 10% of the total area to chile and pepper production.

"I've got 15 varieties of hot chiles going this year, as well as 15 different types of sweet peppers," says Simmons. "Folks should come out and see the rows of crops. They're absolutely gorgeous now. My big money crop is fresh-cut herbs, but my peppers and chiles come in a close second. We sell all of the varieties singly but have had great success with the chile mix assortment. It's real popular with the fresh salsa makers, and all of the colors mixed together are like a painting. The colors are stunning." Simmons' biggest producers this year have been the mucho nacho jalapeños, big chile Anaheims, and four different types of habanero.

"I don't grow the TAM hybrid jalapeño [a variety developed at Texas A&M, known for its total lack of heat]. It was developed by them for the big salsa companies, to produce the mild salsa," Simmons says. "They use the TAMs for background flavor and use cayenne chiles for the heat. Give me the real thing any day, not some fake flavor."

Simmons sells to Central Market Lamar, Wheatsville Co-op, and Sun Harvest, delivering three times weekly. "It's really sad to go to a chain supermarket and see the produce section stocked with lackluster, wilting chiles shipped in from God knows where," she says. "If people would taste the difference between those sorry specimens, and chiles that are plump, shiny, and at their prime, they'd never go back."

"We plant our chiles after all danger of frost, which usually means late April out here," says Simmons. "This year we had 28 degrees on the 17th of April, and the peppers and chiles are really tender. We don't want to lose any, because we grow all our starts organically. We usually have a freeze by Halloween, and it's probably pretty comical to see us out there by the light of the moon, frantically picking peppers before the freeze and trying to anchor down floating row covers in a 30-mile-an-hour blue Norther. It might look funny, but it's not a real fun time for us.

"We've got all the usual pests, but armadillos are our biggest pain. We use drip irrigation covered by six inches of mulch. The dillos plow each row right down the center looking for the worms and grubs to eat. It can be real destructive. Deer are always a problem, and this year, with no winter for the last two years, bugs have been horrible. The fire ants we peacefully co-exist with," Simmons adds.

Onion Creek Farms runs a self-service farm stand on the road with herbs, veggies, eggs, and a few flowers. It opens at 9am on Saturdays and Sundays, and stays open until the stand runs out of product.

Hariston Creek Farms, Burnet

Gary and Sarah Rowland run Hairston Creek Farms in Burnet (512/756-8380) on 14 acres of certified organic land. They have, on average, six to seven acres under production at any given time and are unique in that they are the only growers contacted who have had any kind of luck growing poblano chiles in this area. Gary says, "We had a beautiful crop last fall and had six different types of poblanos to test this year, but they all got wiped out, along with a bunch of our other types of chiles, by the April 17th freeze." He is currently growing Anaheims, red and orange habaneros, and several types of jalapeños. "We sell to Whole Foods, Sun Harvest, Wheatsville, and Fresh Plus, and Sarah is at the Westlake Farmer's Market every Saturday with our whole assortment of produce."

Sunset Farms, Lago Vista

The Penn Brothers of Sunset Farms in Lago Vista are probably the most unique of the growers interviewed. Their family owns a huge ranch in northwestern Travis County that was decreed a golden-cheeked warbler habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Subsequent battles with the agency and three counties led to a search for viable crops to grow for an agricultural exemption. Penn brother Richard has a horticultural degree from Texas A&M, so he had a good base for agricultural research into crops that would work in the high alkaline soil. They tried many different options in 1988 and '89, and finally settled on chiles, particularly varieties from South America and the Caribbean.

At their peak, the Penns had about 10 acres in production and harvested 25 tons annually. Over the years they've tried over 600 different varieties of peppers and chiles. "As the word got out that we were doing this in a big way, we got more and more contacts with pepper experts from all around the world," says Robert Penn. "They would send us seeds from all corners of the globe. We'd get envelopes from all over the place with seeds wrapped up in napkins and little notes about this obscure chile grown only in this particular village. It was bizarre. Dr. Jean Andrews [noted world pepper expert at the UT Botany Department] was instrumental in helping us key-out these peppers, so that we could figure out what they really were. She used our crops to illustrate her groundbreaking book Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums.

"In the early Nineties, with the birth of Chile Pepper Magazine, the chile craze just took off. People ate it up. They were just fascinated with chiles, and we were sitting pretty. But labor costs were eating our lunch. Peppers are a labor-intensive crop to harvest, package, and ship, especially on a large scale. And we had requests from all over the globe. We got into drying chiles and found a surprising market in the floral industry, using dried chiles in arrangements. We sold at the Farmer's Market on Burnet Road for a long time, but it all got to be too much.

"Now I think the real market, especially with our interest in the scientific end, is seed research with seed companies and university-level horticultural and botanical research. It's no piece of cake. It can take up to three years of growing to isolate pure strains of some of the species

"I'm a flavor guy. I go for the flavor, not the flame. Some of the chinense [habaneros and Scotch bonnets] species can be so incredibly fruity and flavorful. They've got heat, but also have the flavor. I think more and more that the real market growing peppers isn't culinary. I'd love to see the seed market develop, especially regional accessibility," Penn says. Sunset Farms is currently negotiating with a major seed company in India to supply it with strains of numerous chiles for production there. And the growing the Penns do today is all geared toward maintaining pure, isolated stocks of pepper seeds for sale to growers and seed companies, and, of course, for further research.

We all have a friend, co-worker, or relative with the ultimate, killer, secret salsa recipe, or we have one of our own. That's why the Chronicle's Hot Sauce Festival is such a huge success. These sauces have a myriad of ingredients, but one is omnipresent: the chile pepper. One can go to the Hot Sauce Museum (618 E. Sixth, 499-0766) and find over 100 different hot sauces and 150 different fiery sauces and salsas for sale, with over 300 kinds on display from all over the world. They all get their punch and flavor from the ubiquitous chile.

But taste-test a locally grown organic chile against the limp offerings found at your local mega mart, and there is absolutely no comparison. Our local growers battle the elements daily to bring us the finest peppers at the very peak of flavor, and we would be fools not to take advantage of their bounty. Buy local, buy seasonal, and eat spicy. And patronize our local producers of the sacred pod.

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