in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for
the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker
to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king;
Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España,
foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose
España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head
Range of crops: greens, root crops,
tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic,
melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers
market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants
that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping,
crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year
September 13 , 2004: When my wife, Julia, and I visited
the Spanish town of Padrón eleven years ago during our honeymoon
I paid more attention to her than I did to the local hot pepper, the
pimiento de Padrón. When we left and I drove white-knuckled
over curvy, narrow roads to Santiago de Compostela I didn’t
yet know Padrón even had a local pepper. All that has changed.
Julia might accuse me now of paying more attention to my Padrón
peppers than to her. But when we got married I worked on someone else’s
farm and harvested a weekly paycheck; now she and I have our own vegetable
farm. If we want to go back to northern Spain and drift around the
countryside sampling frisky, white, local wines we’ll need money.
Since Padrón peppers retail for up to twenty dollars a pound,
growing them seems like a good way to get back to Padrón. But
yes, there’s a catch.
I might have been better prepared to cultivate Padrón peppers
if I’d spent more time bar hopping instead of farming. When
Chef Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco, gave me a package
of Padrón pepper seeds and told me he’d buy all I grew
I accepted his proposition without thought. I knew how to grow peppers.
Plant the seeds in the green house in February while the fields
are still cold. Outside prepare the ground by laying drip tape over
the top of raised beds, then put down a soil hugging black plastic
mulch film for weed control. Transplant through the film in the
middle of April. The film keeps the weeds down and soil humidity
up. Peppers are heavy feeders so fertigate the planting by drip
tape at any sign of loss in plant vigor. Because immature pepper
pods are susceptible to sun burn push the plants for a dense, protective
canopy of foliage that will shade the fruits. With all these precautions
what can go wrong? Here’s where experience with the bar scene
comes in handy.
While I was grunting around hot fields in California, my affluent
Spanish peers were nibbling at tasty snacks and lingering over glasses
of dry Sherry in cool tapas bars. No, not topless bars, tapas bars.
A tapa is a bite sized morsel, often salty or savory. You might
think of a tapa as an appetizer, though they are intended to stimulate
a person’s thirst as much as their appetite. The idea is for
people to get dressed up and head down the boulevard, stopping in
at one establishment, then another, having a bite and having a glass
while bumping into old friends and making new ones, before finally
heading home for a sit down meal with the family.
Fried Padrón peppers makes a fabulous tapa. The peppers
are picked in their tender infancy when they are about the size
of olives. The cook tosses the peppers, seeds, stems and all, into
a skillet so hot the olive oil almost smokes. The tiny peppers are
blistered first on one side, then the other, before being salted
and plated for serving. Most Padrón peppers are mild but
about one pod out of twenty will burn the tongue as only a chili
can. The risk every customer takes only enlivens their interest
in their snack. Who loses when a Padrón pepper stings a diner?
Certainly not bartenders; they respond quickly to the conflagration
by selling another cool drink.
But I knew nothing of this the first year Chris gave me Padrón
seeds. I planted the Spanish peppers and assiduously cared for them
amidst all my other pepper plants. They thrived. Unfortunately for
me all the hot peppers I cultivated shared an erect, airy habit
and I couldn’t tell them apart. The plants looked all the
same. When the Padrón peppers were tiny and ripe to be picked
they looked like any other baby hot pepper with wrinkled green skin
and a long stem hooked like a question mark. When the Padrón
peppers matured to a waxy, fire engine red color with a scorching
flavor they looked nothing like the pictures I puzzled over in my
Spanish cook books. At length I decided the seed company ripped
me off or the nursery had misplaced my plants. I did harvest some
curiously hot “paprika “ peppers I couldn’t remember
planting, though. When Chris began asking after his Padrón
peppers I blamed everyone else. Since Chris is a trusting soul he
got me more seed this past winter and I tried again this year.
I made the same mistakes the second year as I did the first and
planted my Padrón peppers amidst my Poblanos, Boldog Paprikas,
and Anaheims. This time I knew it was I who goofed. I went on hands
and knees through the pepper patch inspecting young pepper pods
and biting into them. I took samples of several peppers picked at
different sizes and fried them just as it said to in my cookbooks.
It finally made sense to me. Hot peppers only develop their heat
as they near maturity. The super hot “paprikas” from
the year before were simply overgrown Padrón peppers. The
high price Padrón peppers command is simply what a farmer
must charge to pay for the labor of picking such tiny fruits. When
Padrón peppers are picked even a centimeter too large they
are too uniformly hot to be a savory risk for the bar patron or
a sure bet to the barkeep.
Though named for a town in Spain the Padrón pepper, like
every pepper originally, is descendent from plants the Spaniards
encountered in the New World. The Spanish palate is different than
the Mexican palate; though the two countries share the same tongue
they have different tastes. The Spaniard insists on only being occasionally
surprised by a piquant bite of hot pepper. The Mexican fellows who
work for me prefer peppers that are “bravo’, or even
“muy bravo”. If I am going to earn 20 dollars a pound
for my Padrón peppers, I have to learn the exact parameters
of the tapas experience. Without the time or money to go bar hopping
in Spain with urban trend setters I have to harvest, cook, and eat
my own crop until I can pass an accumulated wisdom on to our workers
who know they know more than me about peppers.
When I can teach the crew what I have learned, I’ll plant
lots of Padrón peppers and sell them for lots of money. Then,
with a fist full of money I’ll tell Julia she’s still
hotter than any pepper I’ll ever find and invite her to go
back to Spain with me, to Padrón, so we can hop from bar
to bar toasting our marriage with cool, dry, golden sherry.
social challenges of running a farmers' market stall
The protestors and cranks at an urban farmers' market
thrust Andy inot delicate merchandizing dilemmas and
make him eager to return to the sweet country life.
can keep your lemonade...
Life gave me elderberries, not lemons, and that's just
fine with me, says Andy.
Andy discovers how his first-ever planting of stiff-necked
garlic got it's scientific name and stumbles upon another
marketing gimmick--spicy serpents.
Rollin' While the rest of the world savors basil
and tomatoes, Andy gets pumped up to plant parsnips.
It's all part of the cycle.
July 2, 2004
Truckin' Stop! Put that plastic truck (or other
piece of marketing swag) down and back away. Think smart
promotion to keep your small farm in the public eye.
June 2, 2004
Carrots It's astounding to what uses Andy Griffin's
farmers' market customers will put his kinky, crooked
carrot culls. Every carrot has a home.
May 11, 2004
I smart? Carelessness, poor planning and neglect
leads Mariquita's Andy Griffin to discover the true
value of a strange old heirloom crop--black Spanish
April 20, 2004
off to the many sombreros of a farmer Quack lawyer,
truck driver, fake chef, and borderline carnival barker:
all in a day’s work for a farmer like Andy Griffin
… and once in a while he gets to contemplate nature.
April 2, 2004
watermelon radish: Conspiracy from the left or the right
… or just a darned good heirloom daikon? Those
were among the suspicions raised by this ancient veggie
at a recent event in Santa Cruz designed to introduce
consumers to local food producers.
March 4, 2004
the influx of cheap Chinese garlic—even in to
Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World”—Mariquita
Farm grows green spring garlic, and banks its garlic
dollars long before the garlic festival in July.
February 13, 2004
riders of the purple goosefoot In Watsonville, California,
the founders of Mariquita CSA discover the value of
this antique cousin to spinach.
March 23, 2004
is the time for shameless self-promotion He can't
plant, cultivate or harvest--the fields are a swamp--but
Mariquita's Andy Griffin can sell shares and hustle