Evaluating hot pepper varieties for yields under low tunnels and customer preferences

Final Report for FNE10-701

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $4,232.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
David Vigil
East New York Farms!
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Project Information

Summary:

This project sought to determine the best varieties of C. chinense for the Caribbean market and the best practices for growing them. We trialed 5 varieties of peppers and tracked their popularity at the market, their productivity, and the effects of low tunnels on production. We found that production was higher without the low tunnels. Market surveys allowed us to refine our selection of varieties for the second year of the project, which helped contribute to an overall increase in sales. There is still a lot of work to be done in terms of developing varieties of C. chinense that are adapted to the Northeast and that are popular in the Caribbean market.

We have published a handout with the results of our research that has been distributed in our network here in New York City and is available on our website.

Introduction:

Farm Profile

The UCC Youth Farm is a project of East New York Farms!, an urban agriculture project that aims to increase food access in the East New York area of Brooklyn. We farm on about ½ an acre on land owned by the Parks Department of New York City, growing 70 different varieties of 35 crops. In addition, we support a network of 50 urban growers who are raising a range of crops for our two farmers markets.

Participants

Besides the farm manager, other participants in the project were John Ameroso, youth interns from our project, and the farm manager of Eckerton Hill Farm. John Ameroso served as the Cornell Cooperative Extension agent for New York City for many years and retired in 2010, but still remains active in the project and in the urban agriculture community. John grew the seedlings for the project at a heated greenhouse in Staten Island and provided advice on setting up the study. The youth interns from our project took part in planting, irrigating, harvesting, weighing, and selling the peppers, as well as conducting surveys with customers on their preferences. Wayne Miller, of Lone Acre Farm and formerly the farm manager at Eckerton Hill Farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, hosted a farm visit and offered advice from his eight years of experience growing peppers and tomatoes for the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan.

Project Objectives:

The purpose of our experiment is to determine which varieties of C. chinense are the most popular at the market, the most productive in our climate, and to ascertain the ideal culture practices for our region.

We will select four varieties of C. chinense for our trials, purchasing from Northeast seed sources when possible. The orange habanero (Johnny’s) has been our standby variety and we will grow it for the trials as our baseline. We will consult with farmers from Added Value in Brooklyn, the Queens County Farm Museum, and other area growers to get a general sense of their experience with C. chinense varieties. We will also visit the Oak Grove Plantation Farm in New Jersey, with grows over 150 varieties of hot peppers. Consulting other farmers will help us avoid common mistakes in our trials and selection of varieties, but won’t serve as a substitute for concrete data. Our access to a large Caribbean customer base and use of season extension techniques puts the UCC Youth Farm in a unique position to perform this research.

Seedlings will be grown by John Ameroso, of Cornell Cooperative Extension, at the Gericke Farm on Staten Island. John has worked with ENYF! since its inception, and has grown hot pepper plants for us and other urban farms for many years. John will also assist with setting up the trial plots for project. The peppers will be transplanted on June 1st or as close to that date as weather permits. Plants will be spaced in 24” apart in staggered double rows. All of the beds will be irrigated with drip irrigation and covered with black plastic mulch to minimize weed competition and increase soil temperature.

In addition to establishing the preferred varieties, we will be looking at inexpensive season extension techniques to see if they improve yield and ripening at the front end of the season. Though a high tunnel would be optimal, it is not practical for many of the urban spaces where we grow food in East New York and can be a costly investment for small-scale growers. Low tunnels are an inexpensive alternative that are cost and space-effective. We would construct low tunnels from PVC pipes and test two different covers: 6mil greenhouse plastic and floating row cover (Agribon 19). The plastic tunnel would be constructed to allow the sides to be raised for greater ventilation in the warmer months. All varieties will be planted in each of the two tunnels and outside to compare yields.

To continue to attract Caribbean customers, including those from beyond our immediate neighborhood, we will post flyers for our market in Carribean neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, and advertise our market in Caribbean Life, a New York area newspaper with a circulation of 130,000. These flyers and advertisements will emphasize our scotch bonnet peppers and other Caribbean products.

We will also ensure that our network of urban growers benefits immediately from this project by building funds into our budget to purchase the seeds for the most successful pepper variety (as determined by our research) and providing these to local urban growers for the 2011 growing season.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • John Ameroso

Research

Materials and methods:

Conditions

Because of our urban location, our land base is extremely limited. Our variety trials would have been much larger if the space allowed, which would have given us more robust data. In regards to weather, we experienced two extremes, in 2010 with heat and in 2011 with the rain and tropical storms. Because we have not been looking at production longitudinally, it’s difficult to say if the weather conditions had a significant impact on growth. One notable feature about both seasons is that there was no frost before our last market (November 15th) in both years of the grant. Since most of our sales happen at our market, we aren’t really set up to sell a lot of produce after it ends, even though in some years there are still a lot of peppers on the plants.

Project Activities

The first year of our project was spent conducting the research on varieties of C. chinense. We grew five different varieties of peppers using two different methods and measured the days to first harvest and the yields. Because of our limited land base, we opted to compare only two different growing methods—with floating row cover and without. Introducing a third method (originally anticipated to be low tunnels with plastic) would have meant significantly impacting the space devoted to other crops or reducing the sample sizes. We were also concerned about plastic low tunnels capturing too much heat and damaging the plants, as it was a particularly warm spring when we were setting up the study. We grew four varieties of C. chinense to compare against our control for a total of ten planting blocks.

Customers were surveyed to find out which varieties they prefer, their buying habits, and the varieties they would like to see grown in the future. We visited Eckerton Hill Farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, combining it with a visit to Meadow View Farm in Bowers, PA, where we collected seeds of fifteen more varieties of C.chinense.

In our second year, we focused our efforts on increasing the variety of peppers that we grow and refining our growing practices. We planted 12 varieties of Capiscum chinense, allotting more space to the most successful varieties from the 2010 trials while still incorporating promising new strains. The peppers were planted in black plastic mulch with no row cover, and we experimented with a weave trellis method to facilitate harvest and support plants that grew up to 4’.

Research results and discussion:

Results

We had some setbacks in our 2010 trials. One variety of seed was not true to type, rendering the data from that type unusable. It is not clear if the seed had been contaminated through cross pollination, a mix-up at the seed company, or in the greenhouse where they were started. We also were not able incorporate high tunnels with plastic into our trials.

We were surprised to find that the all but one of the varieties produced more fruit without any row covers. The orange habañero from Johnny’s was the most productive variety by far in the unprotected plants, but not so with the plants under row cover. A different variety of orange habanero (Craig’s Triple Hot) was the most productive under row cover, with mustard habanero and the orange habanero not far behind.

Productivity was as follows:
Row Cover
1. Craig’s Triple Hot
2. Mustard Habanero & Habanero (no significant difference)
3. Caribbean Red
Open
1. Habanero
2. Mustard Habanero
3. Caribbean Red
4. Craig’s Triple Hot

In customer surveys, we asked which of the varieties customers preferred of the types that we grow, including two types that were not part of the row cover trial (Yellow Scotch Bonnet and Jamaican Yellow Squash). Customer preferences were as follows:
1. Yellow Scotch Bonnet
2. Caribbean Red
3. Orange Habanero
4. Mustard habanero
5. Jamaican Yellow Squash

We found that naming and identifying pepper varieties can be challenging, as there are differing opinions about what constitutes the “true” Scotch Bonnet. We were unable to come to any final conclusions on the matter.

We have continued our search for varieties of C. chinense that are productive and popular. Chocolate habaneros were one of the most popular new varieties that we grew in 2011. We also saw market potential in two areas that are new to us: seasoning peppers and ultra-hot peppers. Upon the recommendation of Wayne Miller, we grew four new varieties of C. chinense known as ‘pimentos’ or ‘seasoning peppers’—these peppers have the same shape and distinctive aroma as Scotch Bonnets, but without the heat. We have been growing aji dulce, a Puerto Rican seasoning pepper, for the last six years, but the West Indian varieties were new to the farm. The small amount of seasoning peppers that we grew consistently sold out, so we are looking forward to a larger planting in 2012. Customers have also brought us seed for other varieties of seasoning peppers that we hope to incorporate into our selection.

In 2011 we grew two ultra-hot varieties of peppers: bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) and Trinidad Scorpion. The bhut jolokia originated in India and is a cross of C. chinense and C. fructens, and it is one of the hottest peppers on record. Trinidad Scorpion is C. chinense also ranks among the world’s hottest. We planted these more for novelty than for production, but customer reception was positive and we plan to plant more for 2012. The bhut jolokia that we grew using saved seed from Eckerton Hill Farm was especially hardy and prolific in our climate (USDA Zone 7b), and we were harvesting fruit through November. Though neither of these are traditionally popular West Indian varieties, their extreme heat is in keeping with customer preference. Additionally, the increasing notoriety of the bhut jolokia makes it popular outside of the traditional pepper customer base.

Economics

In the second year of our grant we recorded our largest pepper harvest ever; initial calculations show a 20% increase in sales of peppers at our farmstand. We were able to begin selling to three restaurants at the neighborhood with our excess production. The research we have done has allowed us to more finely tune our crop plan so that our pepper harvest starts earlier and runs longer.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach
Public outreach about our pepper trials has happened on several different levels. We provided over 30 urban growers in East New York with pepper seedlings for the 2011 season and followed up with them about the success of the different varieties. We hosted over 700 people on the farm during the course of the season and taught them about the varieties of crops that we grow. In October we presented our pepper selection trials at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Chile Pepper Fiesta. We also hosted a Chile Festival at the East New York Farmers’ Market with informational tables about pepper varieties and value-added pepper products.

We have published a handout with the results of our research that has been distributed in our network here in New York City and is available on our website.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Assessment

We were hoping that the row covers would help the plants produce larger and earlier harvests, though we found neither to be the case. We did not analyze production after the market season concluded. There is more research that needs to be done in terms of season extension into the late fall (especially in our zone), when the plants are still often laden with fruit that is slow to ripen.

In terms of varieties, there is still more work that needs to be done with testing and importing Caribbean varieties of peppers. Many seed companies in the Northeast stock locally-adapted cultivars of the habanero, but the Scotch Bonnet and seasoning peppers are relatively unexplored. We were able to learn a lot from other growers in Pennsylvania, but for the most part their products are not reaching the denser Caribbean populations in our area.

This project reinforced the importance of farmer knowledge and research in the development of specialty market crops, because often seed companies are behind the curve when it comes to developing specialty varieties.

Potential Contributions

Adoption

We were able to expand and refine our selection of peppers at the market as a result of the grant. The addition of super-hot varieties and seasoning peppers was a surprise benefit of the research, and we look forward to continue growing those. We were also able to build relationships with other pepper growers with whom we will continue to exchange seeds and information. 

In regards to season extension, we will probably explore high tunnels again, which was the original method that prompted the research question. The potential return on peppers is quite high, and so we will try to devote some of our high tunnel space to their cultivation.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.