Set the Table with Hot Peppers
Written onJune 01 , 2008
There’s an old adage that says, “You can’t grow peppers in Vermont.” But then there’s another expression: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it!” In the heart of dairy country in West Addison, Michael and Lisa Shannon are growing an extensive assortment of hot peppers on approximately one acre. They say these fairly tough plants, many of which originated in Central and South America, can thrive in Vermont’s climate.
When the Shannons started their farm, Rainbow Acres, in the early 90s, they were ready for the pepper challenge. To grow these heat-loving plants in Vermont’s cool weather, Michael began relying on several techniques, including the use of black plastic and row covers, and careful variety selection. Black plastic is used by many growers to cover the soil around a plant, holding in heat and keeping the soil at a warmer temperature for plants to thrive, and row covers protect plants early in the season when nighttime temperatures are unpredictable. Since peppers generally don’t thrive when the temperature dips to 40 degrees or lower, black plastic and row covers can offer a few extra degrees of protection.
Variety selection is also important for success. Due to Vermont’s short growing season, peppers that require more than 90 days to harvest will be more challenging to grow, especially if an early frost arrives in September. Season extension techniques are therefore a necessity if the fruits of the pepper harvest are to be enjoyed.
Despite the extra requirements of hot peppers, Michael says that with proper soil fertility, they are fairly low maintenance. He relies on an organic fertilizer and natural gypsum as soil amendments and applies a magnesium solution to the plants during the flowering stage that helps the plant set fruit. Although Michael has mastered the art of pepper growing, there is one type that often gives him difficulty: the Poblano. He says it’s possible to get small fruits from the plant, but it's really hard to get the nice, big, extra-flavorful ones.
The Shannons currently grow red and yellow habanero, cayenne, Hungarian, jalapeño, and Thai dragon, among others (see sidebar for hot pepper descriptions). They also operate a small processing business called Vermont Hots, creating specialty products from the peppers and other vegetables they grow. The Vermont Hots product line includes sauces such as Red Habenero Pepper Sauce, Yellow Habanero Pepper Sauce, Red Jalapeño Sauce, Cayenne Sauce, and Dragon Sauce; a variety of pickled hot pepper rings; and unusual products such as Hungarian Horseradish and and Spicy Dilly Beans. They're available at many co-ops.
The hotness of peppers is rated worldwide according to the “Scoville scale.” This system measures the amount of capsaicin in the pepper—capsaicin being the compound that stimulates heat-receptor nerve endings in the tongue, thereby providing the tingly sensation when we eat spicy peppers. A sweet pepper, which contains no capsaicin, has a Scoville rating of zero. Habanero, the hottest pepper, has a rating of 300,000 or more units. Jalapeños can range between 2,500 and 8,000 units and the cayenne averages about 40,000 units.
When asked about his personal preferences, Michael says he likes ‘a nice spice,’ which is more in the jalapeño range of hotness. He has many customers who appreciate the really hot products, and customers for whom he just can’t make anything hot enough. What is their ‘hottest’ product? Michael says it’s the Red Habanero Sauce made with ‘Caribbean red’ habanero peppers. The Yellow Habanero Sauce is a close second, followed by the habenero pepper rings.
Operating a processing business was not part of the Shannons’ initial plan. Michael says he was first approached by a Vermont vinegar producer to grow hot peppers for a value-added product line. At harvest time, the buyer backed out and Michael and Lisa had a lot of peppers on their hands. That’s when their Vermont Hots business was born.
The Shannons are among the few food processors in Vermont who are actually growing the ingredients found in their product, and doing both the growing and processing is a lot of hard work. Michael points out that a lot of products on the market don’t incorporate local ingredients, but it was their goal from day one to grow their own ingredients when possible. Michael says he has scaled back his business in recent years, but at one point it was a complete family operation that included himself, his wife, Lisa, and Lisa’s mother and aunt.
Although his businness is not as large as it once was, Michael says it’s a good time to be a Vermont farmer. “Local is on the rise,” he says. “With the costs associated with bringing food in, it’s time to recognize the value of food grown right here.”
Hot Pepper Picks
Cherry bomb: 65 days. Small, round red fruit. Good for stuffing and pickling. 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units (Tomato Growers Supply).
Early jalapeño: 65–75 days. Named for Jalapa, Mexico. Used in burritos and tamales and for making jalapeño poppers. Known as Chipotle when smoked. 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units (High Mowing Seeds).
Hungarian hot wax: 60 days yellow; 85 days red. A dependable and productive variety for Northern climates. Yellow, waxy fruit turning orange–red when ripe, 4–6 inch fruits. Good for pickling. 5,000 to 10,000 Scoville units (High Mowing Seeds).
‘Ring O Fire’ cayenne: 80–85 days. Bright red, 4–6 inch fruits. Used for making dried ristras or crushed red pepper flakes. 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units (High Mowing Seeds).
Tabasco: 85–90 days. Cultivated in Mexico since the early 1800s. Made famous in the U.S. by the McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco Sauce. Fruits ripen to a bright red and have a distinct hot–smoky flavor. 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units (Kitchen Garden Seeds).
Thai hot: 80 days. Native to Thailand and used in Asian cuisine. Clusters of bright red 3–inch fruits ripen on the tops of plants. 80,000 Scoville units (Tomato Growers Supply).
Habanero: 90–100 days. Native to Central America’s tropical lowlands. Thrives where summers are long and hot. Lantern-shaped fruits ripen to bright orange. One of the hottest peppers; gloves should be worn when handling. 200,000 to 300,000 Scoville units (Harris Seeds).
‘Caribbean red’ habanero: 95–110 days. A variety of Habanero that ripens to a bright red instead of golden orange. Can be up to twice as hot as the standard habanero so handle the seed and fruit with care. 350,000 to 450,000 Scoville units (Harris Seeds).