Valley Bounty: Peppers

On farms across the Valley, pepper season has kicked into gear. The peppers are looking good at Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, says Tim Wilcox, who owns the farm with Caroline Pam. Harvest is well under way for many green pepper varieties including jalapeño, poblano, shishito, and cubanelle. But pepper harvests will continue for months, right up until the first frost of fall. Pam and Wilcox have their fingers crossed for hot, dry weather during their extended harvest season. “I can’t always order that up,” Pam explained, “but that’s what we hope for.”

For pepper growers in the Valley, a rainy season brings grave risk. “There’s a very serious disease we get in peppers,” Wilcox told me. “That was the big story last year because of all the rain.” Phytophthora is a blight that has the potential to devastate entire pepper plantings. Once established, the disease quickly causes plants to collapse and fruits to wither and wilt. Phytophthora relies upon water to move between plants so standing puddles in fields and splashing during a heavy rainstorm can be perilous for pepper growers. Wilcox and Pam are vigilant for any signs of phytophthora in their fields and although things look clear thus far, they remain wary. “We don’t know what the weather this week will bring, what the weather in September will look like. We still have a long way to go in pepper season,” Wilcox said.

Despite the uncertainty of the crop, Wilcox and Pam push forward with peppers out of a great passion for the food. Growing peppers was only a small part of their farm operation when Wilcox and Pam hosted their first Chilifest in 2012. They were thrilled to discover a thriving chili subculture. “People really came out of the woodwork and those people who appreciate peppers are really passionate about it,” Pam told me. Chilifest has now grown into an annual event the farm hosts each September and has become an opportunity to connect with others who share the pair’s enthusiasm for the crop. Some are home chefs looking for high quality peppers to balance flavors in customized hot sauces. Others want to taste the hottest pepper they can find. “They just want to get their hands on all the Carolina Reapers and blow their faces off because there is a competitive, fun culture of seeing what you can handle,” Pam explained.

Pam especially values the opportunity to talk chilis with people from other countries. Kitchen Garden Farm grows peppers from all over the world and they have found that for people who moved to the Valley from other nations, the opportunity to find a pepper from their homeland can be a powerful experience. “That’s really meaningful for me,” Pam said. “Those people who are passionate about chili peppers because it has a specific memory and place in their food history that they can connect to by cooking with our peppers.”

For those looking to experiment with a new recipe this pepper season, Pam recommends nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce. Mix 1/3 cup lime juice, 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons of sugar, and 2/3 cup water in a bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved then add 5 tablespoons of fish sauce followed by 3 thinly sliced serrano chiles and 2 cloves of minced garlic. It’s great as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and lettuce wraps, or as a dressing for cabbage slaw!

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)