Small-scale farming in the U.S. is still a challenge, says Krissy Scommegna of the Boonville Barn Collective.
About 100 kilometers north of San Francisco, in the Anderson Valley, in the small town of Boonville (population about 1,000), you’ll find the largest production of Piment d’Espelette peppers outside of France. It’s thanks to Scommegna and her husband Gideon Burdick that they grow these unique peppers in abundance for chefs, and now for home cooks.
What started somewhat accidentally as a business has grown into an example of highly specialized small-scale production. When Sommegna was working as a sous chef at the restaurant at The Boonville Hotel, he discovered Espelette peppers: they were a bit like a paprika, but with a little more heat and complexity of flavor.
“These are not peppers you want to eat raw. But dried they produce a lovely flavor and can be substituted for black pepper or paprika in dishes. They add layers of flavor with just a small amount.”
So, naturally, Scommegna started growing them on his family’s farm while working in the kitchen. The first harvest was enough for the restaurant kitchen, and that of a few local chefs who became fans of the sweet but heated flavor. That enthusiasm led Scommegna to grow a little more the following season, in an effort to feed the growing appetite of nearby restaurants. And over the years, it has become a business that goes beyond chefs. From 2012 to 2109, Scommegna was building a business aimed primarily at high-end restaurants. But the pandemic forced them to change their business.
“We had to quickly figure out how to become a direct-to-consumer brand in 2020. It became a reality,” he says.
Independent grocers and food stores began stocking the product in the Anderson Valley and nearby counties, and continued to sell through their website. Today its products are sold in about 500 restaurants and more than 100 specialty food stores.
Nacho Flores, who works on the farm, oversees the production of peppers on 3 hectares of farms, is from Michoacán, Mexico. “He’s really adapted what he already knew about farming to growing Espelettee peppers and loves experimenting to see what works best,” says Scommegna.
Espelette peppers are grown in France, and are named after the city of Espelette where they originated. Very prominent in Basque cuisine, they are a basic element of the kitchen. However, here in Boonville they are known as Piment d’Ville. Just as champagne isn’t called champagne unless it comes from that specific region, Espelette peppers also retain that right, making them an expensive import found in limited quantities in grocery stores. specialty foods from the USA.
That’s why Scommegna sees an opportunity to bring something that’s exclusive and hard-to-find to more consumers here in the U.S., reshaped as a California-grown pepper. Across some 6 hectares, Scommegna and his team have judiciously divided the land to accommodate 80,000 pepper plants (of more than 12 varieties), but are also growing an assortment of other crops: olives, dry beans and even strawberries. Much of this is to help create a variety of products for the Boonville Barn Collective and extend the harvest season. Of course, many of these crops also help regenerate soils, says Scommegna.
“By having a few more specialty products and peppers that have different seasons, we can have an interesting assortment of products to offer customers, rather than just one variety. Plus, we can keep harvesting plants all year round.”
Everything, however, still happens on the farm: the peppers are grown from last season’s seeds. It is then harvested and dried on site. Soon after, they are crushed and packaged in glass jars and shipped to customers, all from the farm.
This kind of hyperlocal operation is possible because they are still farming on a small scale by industry standards. But Scommegna agrees with that. She’s less interested in building a chili or spice empire, and more interested in serving the needs of chefs and foodies who want to explore heirloom varieties and less-available products.
“We also take great pride in paying all our workers. No one works on our farm for free, or in exchange for room and board. This may make our products more expensive. But we think that’s the true cost of farm-raised produce in Northern California,” he says.
Although all farming is done organically, Scommegna explains that they have not achieved certification. Instead, they have adopted the Renegade certificate, which is only available in Mendocino County in California. The Renegade program, he says, started because farmers wanted to go beyond USDA organic.
“It’s actually more stringent than the national program. And it’s designed specifically for growers here in the county. We have a different climate, soil and growing environment than farmers in the Midwest and East Coast, and because we wanted something that was specific to the needs of the local community. Mendocino County was also the first county to ban GMOs in the US.”
It is this fervor for the localized production of organic farming that Scommegna wants to continue. It’s been more than a decade since he harvested the first peppers in Boonville. “Building this type of business is not easy. You have to think about the sustainability of the land, the people, the business and balance it all.” But the challenge continues to feed her.
After a successful career as a French Sous-Chef, André Beaulieu made a bold move to pursue his passion of farming and entrepreneurship. With a dream of putting French-inspired peppers in American kitchens, André started his own farm in Upstate New York.
At his small farm André grows a unique variety of peppers that he calls Provence Peppers. Tasting of sweet warmth, these peppers represent the flavors of the French Provence region that André appreciated so dearly.
André’s mission to bring French flavors to American kitchens saw him connecting with local kitchens that now include his Provence Peppers in their recipes. He has since collaborated with larger scale companies and has made his peppers available to people nationwide.
At Ikaroa, we are fascinated by the bold moves of small-scale entrepreneurs. After a successful Sous-Chef career, André used his knowledge of French flavors to create something new, something he passionately believed in, something that contrasts the traditional idea of American cuisine.
This kind of passion and creativity can be found in our very own kitchen at Ikaroa. Our team of tech and food experts are committed to revolutionize the way we feed ourselves and make healthy ingredients accessible to everyone.
We believe sustainable food practices and technology go hand in hand. Through our innovative products, we seek to bring flavor, nutrition, and convenience to our households. We seek to do this exactly like André Beaulieu: with a passion for freshness and a desire to revolutionize the way Americans eat.