Evaluating hot pepper varieties for yields under low tunnels and customer preferences
We applied for a SARE grant with the goal of evaluating and refining our production of hot peppers of the Capiscum chinense varieties. Specifically, we wanted to compare different varieties of C. chinense for customer preference as well as look at productivity in the Northeast region using different growing methods. Hot peppers, most notably Scotch Bonnets and other varieties of C. chinense, are a signature West Indian crop that is often requested by our customers and represent a potential area of growth for farmers selling to the West Indian community.
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, 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.
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. 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, 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.
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. 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. I visited Eckerton Hill Farm in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, combining it with a visit to Meadow View Farm in Bowers, PA, where I collected seeds of fifteen more varieties of C.chinense. The primary component of project the remains to be completed is outreach—as we further analyze our data we will draft up a report to share with urban and rural growers about our findings.
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. We grew four varieties of C. chinense to compare against our control for a total of ten planting blocks. 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. In regards to growing methods, 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. In terms of customer response, we found the most popular variety to be a yellow Scotch Bonnet type that we grew from plants donated by some Jamaican growers in our network. This variety was not part of field trials but will definitely be something we grow next year. The Caribbean Red was the second most popular variety with customers at our market.
Growing food in New York City has, like farming in any region, certain benefits and limitations. We had the hottest summer on record, with many crops (especially Solanums) ripening 1-2 weeks ahead of schedule. New York City’s marine climate is the warmest in the state, and the heat island effect of the city contributes to elevated temperatures. There were many days this summer the heat was enough to stress the plants, and keeping ahead of irrigation was one of our biggest challenges. After the weather cooled in September the plants recovered, growing to 40” and above. Fall temperatures were much milder and rainfall was higher, the only setback being a hailstorm that decimated many of our leafy greens and significantly defoliated the pepper plants. The fruit was not significantly damaged by the hail, and the point in the year (October 11th) made it less critical that the fruit was shaded. One of the advantages of growing in the city is the public nature of the work we do. The proximity of the trial plots to the fence helped to make the project highly visible, and was a good way to encourage neighbors to come to the market for the peppers.
Our study did not consider the economic impact of the crop, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the peppers contributed a significant amount to the net sales during the peak months of September and October. A further analysis of sales records will show whether or not this is the case—if so, it was an unintended benefit of growing more peppers for the sake of the study.
After the first year of our grant we are left with more questions and ideas to pursue for the next season. We will certainly grow almost all of the varieties again next year (except for the off-type), and we plan to distribute seedlings of these proven varieties to the urban growers in our network. We also continue to look for new varieties that meet customer demand and are productive in our region. The customer survey was a great way to get feedback and germinate new ideas, so that will likely become a regular part of our farm planning process. Speaking with the farmers at Eckerton Hill Farm, we learned about the seasoning pepper/pimento subset of C. chinense, and we’re excited about trying those varieties. We’ve grown ají dulce peppers for our Puerto Rican customers for several years, but have never grown the West Indian seasoning peppers. The main component of the project that remains is to fully analyze our data and prepare a guide to growing peppers to distribute to our network of growers. We want to be able to distribute the guide with seedlings in the spring of 2011, and we are also developing a crop/family-specific workshop series about best practices for growing for market in our area.
Extension agent (retired)
Cornell Cooperative Extension
10A 3rd Place
Brooklyn, NY 11231
Office Phone: 7183631016