Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Learning To Farm Better, Lessons From The Pepper Field

by Farmer Richard and Chef Andrea

When we start to see more color in the pepper field, we know we’re approaching a transition point in the season.  This usually happens towards the end of August or first part of September.  The days are getting shorter, nights are a bit more cool, and we start thinking about when the first frost might nip us. While we’re still harvesting many summer vegetables, we’re also starting to move into fall vegetables such as celeriac and winter squash.  In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, there are peppers.  They won’t take a direct frost, but we can cover them to protect them from frost damage or we can pick them really hard before the first frost and just hold them for a bit in storage.  Sometimes, after the first frost, we get lucky and have a few more weeks of warm weather which pushes any green peppers along so we can continue harvesting into the end of September or first of October!  From a culinary perspective, peppers handle the seasonal transition well.  They pair well with summer vegetables, but they also play nicely with fall and winter vegetables too.  They really do play an important part in our progression through the seasons and are a reliable mainstay in our Midwestern diets.

Our winter crew does a thorough,
top to bottom cleaning of our
greenhouses at the beginning of each year.
Peppers have a long history at Harmony Valley Farm.  Over the years we’ve grown a lot of different types, both hot and sweet.  Our pepper selection has evolved over the years, partly because of changes in what our customers want, but also as a result of changes within the seed industry and as we learn more about growing them.  In fact, peppers have taught us some very valuable farming lessons over the years.  Some years ago, we discovered what bacterial leaf spot (BLS) is and how devastating it can be when it infects your crop.  We thought we were carrying over the disease from one year to the next in our greenhouse.  We changed our greenhouse set-up protocol to include a more extensive cleaning process including sterilizing the inside of the greenhouse, benches, equipment, etc before we started planting.  We also started sterilizing all of our greenhouse flats with hopes that if the bacteria was living on any of these surfaces, we could kill it and stop the cycle.  Unfortunately, we still had the BLS and were still losing pepper crops as a result!  We still thought the disease might be being carried over in the greenhouse, so we partnered with a new grower who had just built a new greenhouse, had new flats, etc.  He agreed to grow our pepper transplants for us one year in his new house that had never seen a pepper plant.  Well, low and behold we still had the disease.  Fortunately, we were able to detect that the disease was on one specific pepper, the Gypsy pepper.  This is how we learned that the disease was seed borne, came to us on the surface of the seed and then spread throughout our pepper field.  We lost our pepper crops for at least three years while we were battling BLS.  We still employ very thorough cleaning and sterilizing procedures every year when we set up our greenhouses.  While this may not have made a difference with this disease, it is a good practice that is valuable for preventing other plant diseases so we chose to continue the practice.  We also learned about the importance of carefully selecting pepper varieties, specifically ones that have disease resistance and are tested for BLS to guarantee there is no disease present on the seed coat.  Additionally, we started sterilizing seeds that have the potential to carry seed borne disease.  This is done through a treatment involving hot water only and, while not always 100% reliable, is beneficial.

A field of young pepper plants. Notice the reflective
plastic mulch covering their raised beds!
Remember the corn earworm Richard wrote about in last week’s newsletter about the challenges of growing corn?  Well, that little pest is attracted to peppers as well.  The larvae burrow into the pepper and feed on the flesh.  One of the means we’ve found to deter this pest in peppers is by changing our planting system.  We now plant our peppers on raised beds covered with a reflective plastic mulch.  The reflection helps to deter and confuse the moth that lays the eggs on the peppers.  With this system, we also use buried drip tape that helps us deliver water and nutrients as needed at different stages of growth.  While this is a more costly system, the results have been good for us and we’ve had some outstanding pepper crops over the years! 

This orange Ukraine plant is loaded with immature peppers
that will turn bright orange-red in color when fully ripe.
Ripe orange Ukraine peppers ready to be picked.

Peppers have also taught us a thing or two about saving seeds and developing varieties.  The Orange Ukraine peppers in your box this week are grown from seed we’ve been saving since the mid to late 90’s.  Richard used to work on the board of directors for the Michael Fields Institute, an organization that supports organic agriculture and research.  The director of that organization at that time visited the Ukraine, saw this pepper and liked it.  He brought some of the seed back and shared it with Ruth Zinniker, a biodynamic grower in East Troy, Wisconsin, who then shared it with Richard.  Richard has grown it ever since, being careful to always keep some of the previous year’s seed as well as saving new seed every year.  One year Ruth had a crop failure and didn’t have any seed to save for the following year, so Richard gave some seed back to her so she could keep growing it.  To our knowledge, we are the only two growers in this country who have grown this pepper!  We like this variety because it produces very heavily and the plants are pretty resistant to many diseases.  The fruit is similar to a bell pepper, except it is smaller with a pointy end instead of a blocky bottom.  When ripe, the fruit is more orange-red than a red bell pepper, but is equally as sweet if not more.  This fruit also has a thick wall which makes it a good choice for roasting! 

We save our own seed for our mini-sweet peppers.
There are usually only 4-6 seeds in each pepper!
This is not the only pepper variety we save seeds from.  It’s probably been at least 15 years or so since we started saving our own seed for mini-sweet peppers.  One of our longtime CSA members, David, was helping us out at a CSA fair in Madison in early March and he told us about this little sweet pepper from Mexico that they were selling at the Willy Street Co-Op.  He pegged it as the next hot thing in the vegetable world and encouraged us to check it out and see if we could grow it.  On his way home from Madison that day, Richard stopped at the Willy Street Co-op and bought a package.  When he got home he extracted all the seeds (which is not that many when you’re talking about this pepper) and planted them in the greenhouse.  It took several years to build up the seed stock to the point where he had enough seed to grow this pepper in volume.  In the early days, this pepper was only available out of Mexico in the winter months.  When we first started growing it, we were selling large volumes both in our region as well as shipping pallets to Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even California!   The commercial seed company picked up on this vegetable’s success eventually and one company released seed for a variety called “Yummy.”  We bought some seed and grew it side-by-side with our mini-sweet pepper.  We thought it was pretty similar until we tasted it.  The difference in flavor was dramatic!  Our variety was by far a superior tasting pepper and we still consider it the best tasting and sweetest pepper we grow.  Despite the painstaking task of extracting just a few seeds from each pepper, we decided to continue to save our own seed and have not bought another commercially produced snack pepper seed since then.  The downside of this story, at least for us, is that the mini -sweet pepper market is now saturated since more growers are now growing the commercial varieties.  Over the past few years many of our markets have faded and we’ve had to cut back on the size of our planting.  We used to get a premium price for our mini-sweet peppers, but now that there are so many peppers on the market, the price is more volatile and can be pretty low at some points in the season.  Regardless of these changes in the marketplace, we continue to grow our original variety for our CSA members and our wholesale partners that know our pepper!

HVF pepper field circa 2012: One of the
most beautiful pepper fields in HVF history!
Yes, peppers have definitely taught us a lot over the years.  We continue to learn more lessons from this crop from year to year and it continues to be one of our favorite crops to grow.  This year has been a somewhat challenging year for our pepper field.  The plants were transplanted in the field when it was still pretty cool, but they did ok, put down roots and started to grow.  The field was looking pretty good when we had that rain event the end of July.  Unfortunately the low end of the field died out because the plants were sitting in standing water for too long.  The drainage for this field got backed up because of the silt that washed into an adjacent field and backed everything up.  Unfortunately we lost some of our hot peppers as well as some sweet peppers.  The remainder of the field is still looking good and producing well.  We have started to see some spots forming on some fruit, specifically the red Italian frying peppers.  This is not uncommon to see in a wet year and/or when peppers are fully ripe.  The pepper might look just fine when we put it in your box, but a spot could start to form after you get it.  Watch your peppers closely and if you see this starting to happen, cut the spot away and eat the remainder of the pepper as soon as possible! 

We are hoping to have several more weeks of peppers to include in your boxes, however if this cool weather continues it is highly likely the first frost will come soon.  We’re preparing to lay out remay (field blankets) to protect peppers as well as other vulnerable crops such as eggplant and basil from frost damage.   If we’re lucky, the pepper field will still be alive and well at our Fall Harvest Party coming up soon on September 24.  This is usually one of our favorite stops along the field tour as members get to pick and eat as much as you want!  Hope to see you there!
Children of all ages enjoy picking
peppers at our fall Harvest Party!

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