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Experiment with red chile peppers turns into prosperous crop

by: NICOLE TRUGILLO/Editor-in-Chief

It started off as an experiment.

Local farmer Steve Newsom says that he didn’t know the first thing about growing chile peppers. But, he succeeded.

“It was all new to me,” says Newsom, who lives in Sundown. “But when they grew late, it really inspired me because I have given up on them. I thought, ‘It’s over,’ but they just turned to chilies.”

Newsom adds when the chilies started to grow, the market was all out of chilies.

“Interesting thing,” says Newsom. “The same chilies that are red are great. That same chile was originally green. Over time, each chile is going to turn red. You have that tight market, and if you watch in the future in the stores, it’s been a great marketing scheme when they say, ‘Hatch green chilies.’ That window you can get a green chile of any sort is only a few weeks. After a while, it’s going to turn red. When we harvested, there were no green chilies around. We had some good response from that.”

Newsom began his search for chile peppers when he was looking for other crops to grow, since the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) killed the cotton program, according to Newsom.

“Finding the seed wasn’t that hard,” Newsom says. “My thought was we’re looking for alternative crops. We know we have to maximize our water. The water table is dropping, so we’re looking for more valuated crops, and one of the things that appealed to us is with the chilies. Our long-term goal is to brand some of our food products.”

According to Newsom, red chile peppers aren’t usually found in Texas, but they are a New Mexico crop and many people get protective of the chilies.

“People are more protective about [the peppers] when you start talking to people from New Mexico, because they probably don’t want us to grow chilies,” explains Newsom.

Newsom, says he has a friend who used to grow red chile peppers in New Mexico. So, that’s how he got and maintained the seed.

“He had contacts and got the seed for me,” explains Newsom. “He essentially gave the seeds to me and said, ‘Try them.’ He had a dealer friend. So, we grew four varieties. The Big Jims are the most popular for size, and they’re medium hot. The Barkers are pretty hot. So if you like really hot, then you want a Barker. It’ll hurt you. The New Mexico 6s are just slightly mild, and anyone can eat it. Sandias are medium, but a slightly different flavor structure.”

Newsom, who is experienced in growing other crops, says he thought that growing chilies was similar to growing wine grapes and conventional cotton.

“We think it’s because of our elevation, which is pretty high,” says Newsom.  “People don’t think we have a high elevation, but we do. The high elevation creates a 30-degree swing almost all summer long. You’ll have 95 degrees and 65 degrees, and if your high is 100 degrees, and then your low is probably going to be 70 degrees. We knew that’s why our wine grapes were so good, because it builds sugar. The sugars and energies that develop carbohydrates are similar to chile peppers. So, we decided to try it. I think our flavor profile is good.”

Newsom planted the chilies in early April, beginning with six acres.

“We lost three of them to chemical drift, and half of that really got a bad hailstorm,” explains Newsom. “We probably ended up having the equivalent to a full acre harvest. We farm around 4,500 acres, so we were looking for just an experiment this year. We planned originally 10 acres, but different things happened with some of them.”

According to Newsom, growing the chilies is similar to growing conventional cotton.

“There’s nothing really unique about growing chilies,” Newsom says. “You really don’t have a lot of hand harvest. In wine grapes, we say we touch the wine grapes, literally. Every week, you’ll touch them, but not chilies. They’ll just grow.”

Newsom says when they grow the chilies next year, they will take the seeds to the greenhouse and sprout in February and transplant.

“The reason we’ll do that is because we want to start hitting the market earlier in the summer,” explains Newsom. “As far as the grow cycle, it’s similar water, similar fertilizer. Cotton and chilies seem to grow in similar patterns, but I haven’t found the pesticide for them here.”

Newsom says he encountered a problem when he was growing the chiles.

“The battle we’re up against here is everyone is round-up ready,” says Newsom. “All of the cotton planted in Texas now is sprayed with glyphosate. Glyphosate is a weed killer, and if you have a crop like conventional cotton that is not round-up ready, then it’s going to kill it. We had some chile peppers that got killed because of that. So, we have to be really careful. People don’t really think about chile peppers around here. They just think about cotton, cotton, cotton and…cotton.”

According to Newsom, he has heard nothing but positive reviews about the chiles. He sells them from home, and he has sold to some restaurants. They are currently working with a company in Fort Worth that’s going to brand their own salsa in the future.

“Next year, we’ll have chilies, onions, and we’ll plant a little bit of garlic,” says Newsom. “We’ll have most of our products farm raised and just bring in the tomatoes from somewhere in south Texas.”

Newsom says it’s great to grow your own products when you’re branding your own items, so that way you know the customers better.

“What we discovered with wine grapes are when you can trace a product from a farmer from all the way to a table,” explains Newsom. “You get to know your customers; they’re more loyal and committed. And the other thing is when you build your own markets and you’re not dependent on a middle man so much, we find that you don’t have to seek out every single market. That’s what we were seeking, the valued product on an alternative crop.”

Newsom began farming when he was still attending South Plains College 26 years ago. He was part of the Livestock Judging Team, and he majored in agriculture. He also grows other crops, including wine grapes ,cotton, alfalfa, peanuts, corn, milo, and squash.

“People think of agriculture as more antiquated than what it is, and the technology is far advanced,” says Newsom. “I can monitor my irrigation, my water pressure from my iPhone. I can monitor when my guys are planting chile peppers. I can see the seed count that’s going down, what field is being done from my computer.”

Newsom adds that the United States food safety is the greatest in the world.

“As a farmer, we will put the least amount of chemicals,” explains Newsom. “The lack of education that goes on about the farm is really missing, and not many people are coming back into agriculture. This is a tough life sometimes, but it’s a good life. This is a good life.”

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