Last fall we survived “Srirachalypse” when the city of Irwindale issued an injunction shutting down the Manufacturing plant for world famous “Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce.” Sriracha – the fastest growing condiment in the country, with sales last year exceeding $60 million – is familiar to you as a red sauce in the clear squeeze bottle with a distinctive green cap. News of a factory shutdown caused panic buying not unlike the chocolate bar frenzy from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One report was that all store shelves were empty. A friend of mine said he rushed out and bought two cases. News reports from New York to Europe to Australia all reported on Sriracha’s possible demise. Cities from all over the Southwest called to entice the Sriracha factory to relocate.
The suit sought injunctive relief for the nuisance of jalapeño pepper smells as the peppers were being delivered from the fields of Ventura County and processed at the Irwindale plant. The injunction was granted four weeks after the peppers had all been harvested and the issue had long passed. According to news reports, the city and the company are working pro-actively in anticipation of the Fall 2014 crop to develop ways to mitigate the peppers’ scent.
We closely followed the issue because 30 acres of those peppers are grown on our family farm in Bardsdale, just south of Fillmore.
Before jalapeño peppers entered our lives as a cash crop, I thoughtlessly tossed around words like chili peppers, hot peppers and jalapeños like they all meant the same thing. But actually, saying “jalapeño” generically is like saying “lettuce.” Is it red leaf lettuce? Butter lettuce? Romaine? Same with jalapeños. There are actually dozens of different varieties of jalapeños. Jalapeños come from the genus Capsicum, species annuum. Deadly hot ghost peppers are from the species chinense. The world famous Tabasco sauce gets its peppers from the species frutescens. Species “annuum” includes most North and South American pepper varieties, ranging from mild bell peppers for your pizza, medium jalapeño peppers for your Sriracha and cayenne pepper for cooking. From the genus “capsicum” derives “capsaicin,” the active component in peppers that creates their heat. Capsaicin levels vary greatly between varieties.
The capsaicin levels, or the “heat,” is measured on a scale originally known as the mouthful “Scoville Organoleptic Test” scale. This Scoville scale was developed by Detroit pharmacist Wilbur Scoville to measure the heat of chilies. Pure capsaicin measures 16 million on the Scoville scale. Ghost peppers land around 1.5 million Scoville. Green peppers have so little capsaicin that they measure less than 100.
Jalapeño peppers generally vary on the Scoville scale from 2500 to 8000. Most mass production of commercially grown jalapeño, like those used for “Pace Picante” brand sauce, are specifically bred to be the most mild jalapeño possible. In order for the manufacturer to control and create their own tiers of “heat” – mild, medium, hot – they actually add an extraction of formulated capsaicin to achieve uniformity on their scale of production. By contrast, Sriracha is made from jalapeños grown purposefully to be on the higher end of the Scoville scale. No capsacin is added to Sriracha.
For planting, seedlings arrive at our 30 acres in huge six- by five-foot palettes with threeto four-inch baby pepper plants similar to the plastic containers in which one buys herbs; but these are tightly spaced, resembling a box of tightly-packed test tubes. The seedlings are loaded onto a modified tractor planting machine which dibbles the soil and inserts the seeding. Over 715,500 seedlings are planted in May or June and harvested in October or November, depending on the weather.
About two weeks before harvest, the plants are intentionally stressed. The leaves curl, the plant droops and laden fruit looks to be in peril. The purpose of the stress is to induce the plant to generate more capsenoids for the peppers to develop as much heat as possible.
The peppers are picked by a machine harvester which was modified from an Idaho potato harvester. It has long horizontal forks – envision a huge fork lift – which lift the entire plant up and out of the ground and shake it. The fruit then falls off onto a conveyor belt. The belt catches the peppers, which are immediately loaded into huge bins that move along the side of the moving harvester. The pulled-up pepper plant is dropped back onto the field. When the harvesting tractor comes back around after finishing the row, the forks pick up the plants laying on the ground again for another shaking and dropping of the peppers onto the conveyor belts leading up to the bin of harvested peppers. Hand crews follow to gather the remaining fruit. The fruit is then hauled to a mobile packing house on the field and hand-sorted on conveyor belts to cull the rots. Tons of peppers are then loaded onto semi-truck loads taken directly to the Irwindale plant. Around 20 trucks per day deliver fresh peppers; there’s less than six hours from picking to packing.
During the week or so of harvest the air is rich and heady with pepper smells. A good harvest produces over a million pounds of these peppers from our ranch. People come by and breathe their scent in and marvel at the wonder of it all. The earth is then turned under, planted with a cover crop before it all begins again in the spring.
In addition to farming peppers, Laura Bartels practices law with the Fillmore firm of Taylor Scoles & Bartels.