Danielle Allen Thought She Had Hot Peppers Nailed. Then She Had to Grow 1 1/4 Tons of Them.

Danielle Allen (R) and her niece, Tegan, harvest eggplant.

This week’s heat wave looked different to farmers. They didn’t just have to keep themselves and their work crews cool and well-watered. They also had to worry about their crops. The Brassicas especially — we’re talking broccoli, cauliflower, kale — get stressed out when it gets too hot. Eggplants and tomatoes like the heat, but their flowers abort when it gets above 90.

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There was one crop out at Root 5 Farm in Fairlee, though, that was pretty happy when the temps climbed: hot peppers. All kinds of hot peppers. Red and Orange Habanero, Chocolate Habanero, Scotch Bonnet, Mesilla Cayenne, Jalapeño, Fresno, Serrano, Poblano, and a Jalapeño-like variety (though of a different color) known as Purple UFO…just reading their names sets taste buds on edge. Hot peppers react in an interesting way to heat, which makes the people who like to eat hot peppers pretty happy, too. “The more a plant is stressed by heat,” explains Jason Parker, who runs serious-hot-sauce-maker Angry Goat Pepper Co. in White River Junction, “the more it reacts by producing capsaicin,” the compound that gives peppers their bite.

What 1600 hot pepper plants look like

Parker's in this story about a farm because most of those peppers reaching toward the sun out at Root 5 are for him. The farm’s owners, Danielle Allen and her husband, Ben Dana, have planted 1,600 pepper plants. And when it comes time to harvest them in the fall, they’ll be trucking some 2,500 pounds of peppers down the highway, where Parker will turn them into hot sauce.

On the farm’s 38 acres, which spread gracefully down the slope from Route 5 to the Connecticut River, you’ll find the full array of vegetables that a thriving small Vermont farm produces these days — everything from salad greens, arugula and tomatoes to beans, eggplant, radishes, salad turnips, Napa cabbages, bok choy… You name it. Gillian Wyman, one of the crew, is growing oyster mushrooms there. Cristina Pellegrini, another young farm worker, has been experimenting with micro-greens and this year is turning her attention to medicinal herbs. The farm sells its produce at Chapman’s in Fairlee on Friday afternoons, the Norwich Farmers Market on Saturdays, and to area restaurants like Hanover’s Market Table and Skinny Pancake, Lyme’s Arianna’s, and South Royalton’s Wild Roots. 

Thriving small Vermont farms do not tend to grow hot peppers, however. For one thing, the plants like the steady, drier heat of more southwesterly climes. For another, you can’t say that people in Vermont snap them up. 

Which is too bad, because Allen actually grins when she talks about them. “We love growing hot peppers,” she says, “but in Vermont we haven’t had a market for them.” Peppers tend to ripen all at once, so you can harvest them all at once—unlike, say, salad greens, which have to be planned carefully and go all drama queen in the week-to-week variability of our weather. So when she connected with Parker last year, she was delighted. “We can grow this crop that we love to grow, and grow it in abundance.”

First, though, she and her colleagues had to spend some time prepping. They’d grown hot peppers casually. Now they had to turn them into a business. “It turns out there’s not a lot of information about growing hot peppers in the Northeast,” says Sarah Herr, another of Root 5’s mainstays, who worked with Allen on the project. The question, says Allen, was yield: how much each plant of each variety would produce, so that they could meet Parker’s specific needs: 500 pounds of Red Habaneros, 200 of Scotch Bonnets, and so on. “We just couldn’t find much for this climate,” says Allen. “So it’s a guess.”

Sarah Herr harvests Cherriette radishes.

Right now, the pepper patch is just one long stretch of green plants. Soon enough, though, their business end will come into view, grow, ripen… and down on South Main Street in White River, Parker will be up to his elbows roasting, processing, tasting, and bottling. 

Allen’s looking forward to that moment. “We’re super-psyched about the hot pepper market,” she says. “We hope it expands!”

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