Farmers have a passion for peppers

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 29, 2012 

Spicy or sweet, oblong or round, chili peppers fill the passionate hearts of a few Columbia Basin farmers.

At Alvarez Organic Farms of Mabton, chili peppers are Hilario Alvarez’s specialty.

“That is what he really loves growing,” said Eddie Alvarez, Hilario’s son.

Alvarez Organic Farms has more than 150 varieties of chili peppers covering about 30 acres, he said. And his dad continues to create new varieties each year by cross-pollinating chili pepper plants to meet the demand he sees.

For Rudy Peña, his passion for chili peppers took him from growing peppers in his Kennewick backyard to filling a half-acre on a Pasco field with more than 5,000 plants.

Peña’s efforts to create a blend from his peppers for wife Michelle’s eggs resulted in the Tri-City blend sold by his small business, Rudy’s Pepperblends.

Washington doesn’t make it on the list of states that produce the most chili peppers — unlike California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And Washington’s 55 acres are barely a blip in the 22,100 acres grown nationwide. The state may not make the list of top chili growers, but chilies are among the more than 300 crops grown in Washington, making us one of the most agriculturally diverse states.

The national production is valued at $146.8 million, with 4.8 million cwt, or hundredweight, of chilies produced in 2011, according to the USDA.

But that doesn’t stop Alvarez Organic Farms from being well known for its chili peppers and its edible chili pepper wreaths, Eddie Alvarez said.

Chili peppers range from sweet to hot and are good for everything from roasting and grilling to creating salsa, he said. They add color and a little kick to practically any dish.

“A lot of people think that peppers are just hot,” Alvarez said.

But some peppers, like the sugar baby, are so sweet that he said it’s almost like eating candy.

The ghost pepper is one of the hottest that both Alvarez and Peña grow. Peña said it’s rated 1 million on the Scoville scale that rates the heat of chili peppers, unlike jalapeños, which are about 10,000.

Peña and Alvarez harvest chili peppers by hand.

Alvarez said his family and their crew of 15 start harvesting chili peppers in August. He tries to continue harvesting through the first few weeks of November, but that’s all dependent on Mother Nature, he said. They harvest 40 to 50 tons of chilies a year.

It’s time intensive to pick chili peppers, especially the tiny ones, Alvarez said. One of the smallest is called bird beak, and while small, it packs a spicy punch.

Once the first frost hits, Alvarez said, they will go full throttle to pick everything they can before the first large frost comes.

Peña starts picking at the end of August. The first freeze will mark the end of his harvest. If not for the freezes, Peña said, the plants would last 20 to 30 years.

Instead, Alvarez and Peña said they tend to start planting pepper plants in greenhouses in February each year.

By May, Alvarez is planting the pepper plants on about a quarter of his 120 acres. He grows about 250 varieties of vegetables, including bell peppers, squash, potatoes, onions, okra, beans and corn. Water for the plants, Peña said, is critical.

By late July, the green peppers start to change color, Peña said.

Chili peppers start green, and as they turn color, they become more flavorful and hotter, Alvarez said. While some like to use the green chili peppers, most customers wait for the red ones.

Red tends to be the final color for chili peppers, although they may turn purple or yellow before going to red. And some will become a bright orange or yellow chili pepper, he said.

On some plants at Peña’s field, different types of the peppers can be seen. A cross between a Thai dragon and a pequin pepper plant has small, round peppers like the original pequin, and a skinny, stubby version of a Thai dragon and a longer, sweeter version of the normal Thai dragon.

Peña said his varieties have continued to increase in the past six years as his plants have cross-pollinated themselves, creating new ones.

One benefit is that more of his chili peppers will just fall off the stem, instead of having to use fingernails to peel the stem from the top of the pepper, Peña said.

This year, Peña said he plans to grow fewer plants. In 2012, he had more than he needed. It’s too much for one person, he said.

Peña dries, smokes and grinds them. He uses the Pasco Specialty Kitchen to create his products, including blends of chili peppers, which can be used for cooking, and a dry salsa blend that customers add to a can of diced tomatoes.

Rudy’s Pepperblends are available at the Pasco and Richland farmers markets, the Kennewick Red Apple Market, Country Mercantile and Pasco’s Knutzen’s Meats.

Alvarez said his dad got into chili peppers while he was growing them in Mexico for another farmer.

Once he moved to the United States and started his farm 35 years ago, that’s what he started growing.

Pepper wreaths are something his dad came up with. Once they are hung in a cool, dry place for a few weeks, they can be saved all year and used as dried peppers, he said.

Alvarez said he started drying chili peppers about five years ago. He’s tried smoking them with mesquite or hickory or drying them to make a nice chipotle pepper.

Alvarez sells his peppers at the Pasco Farmers Market and other farmers markets, including many in the Seattle area. He also sells chili peppers to restaurants, grocery stores and even a chocolatier.

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