Growers’ Insights: Playing with fire

Published in FSD Update

American growers help fan the flames of the chile craze.

Chiles are a “hot” trend for 2014, according to McCormick & Co.’s Flavor Forecast 2014, as food lovers everywhere have a “growing obsession,” with both “sizzling heat” and the “surprisingly full-bodied fruity notes” of chiles.

Alma and James Weaver, co-owners of Meadow View Farm, in Kutztown, Pa., are experiencing people’s intensifying desire for heat. The Jameses raise more than 200 varieties of chiles. “It seems that once people eat hot food, they often want more and more heat,” Alma says. “The very hottest chiles, like [Bhut Naga Jolokia, better known as the ghost pepper] and the even hotter scorpion, are good sellers. We ship them as far as Nebraska, Texas and all over.”

Growing conditions

Chiles can be eaten fresh after peeling off the tough skin and removing the seeds and spongy ribs, but many recipes call for roasted chiles or papery, dried chile peppers from which the stems and seeds are removed. “True chile connoisseurs will eat peeled, roasted chiles or peeled, frozen chiles, but they would never eat them from a can,” says Victoria Franzoy, the office manager at her husband’s family business, Chile River Farms. Franzoy’s farm is located in New Mexico, where the Hatch Valley provides a ripe environment to raise chiles because of its abundant sunshine and cool nights.

“Our biggest challenge is drought. We use drip tape irrigation (water flows through a tube and exits through outlets), with water brought all the way from Colorado’s Rio Grande,” Franzoy says.

Chiles are planted in March. Green chiles are harvested in August or September, while the Franzoy’s four to six varieties of red chiles are harvested in the fall, starting in October and sometimes extending into December. “Chiles start out green, and the red varieties are left in the field to mature to a red color and to dry up,” Franzoy says. “After harvest, a processor dehydrates them further and they’re either ground for chile powder or sold as dried chiles.” Franzoy’s dried red chiles are sold for 90 cents to $1.00 per pound, while fresh, green New Mexico chiles are sold to the market via bulk contract for about $475 to $500 per ton. 

Ed Curry, a fourth-generation farmer and president of Curry Seed and Chile Co., in Pearce, Ariz., provides about 90% of the green chile seed used to grow crops in the U.S. and Mexico. Curry described his farm as “a combination of science and farming.”

A leader in chile genetics and pepper breeding, Curry and his business partner, the late chile breeder Phil Villa, developed a hybrid version of the Anaheim chile pepper called Arizona #20, which became a standard in the green chile industry due to its uniform quality, flavor and heat. The pepper also provides seed that nearly doubles the average yield to increase profitability. Curry loves the challenge of vertical integration—producing the product from beginning to end—and he tests his new green chile varieties by growing them for the canning industry.

Rick Ledbetter, a chile grower in Portales, N.M., mostly grows red tasteless chiles for oleoresin extraction (the coloring extraction from chile) to give color to paprika spice. Ledbetter farms between 200 to 250 acres of chiles. He says chile prices have been steady, and his dehydrated chiles sold for about 90 cents per pound last year.

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