Meet the King of Chile Peppers
(Article) Santa Barbara Dinning & Destination – By James O. Fraioli
Every year, the cultivated fields nestled in the foothills of Santa Barbara’s wine country turn a lush green, and the succulent fruit hanging from the vines ripen in shades of – yellow and red? That’s because I’m not talking grapes but chile peppers – millions of them.
“I saw an opportunity and figured I’d give it a try,” chile farmer Juan Cisneros says with a modest shrug.
That was eight years ago when the young entrepreneur was only 29. Today, the 37-year old Cisneros is the largest chile pepper producer in California, working over 11 million plants into fertile soil every year, and harvesting more than 24 million lbs. of crisp, fresh peppers annually.
Juan Cisneros proudly holds a carton of freshly picked red Fresno chile peppers, which are used for salsas and spices.
The Early Years
Born in Jalisco, Mexico – a state famous for its charros, or cowboys – Cisneros moved to the United States with his cousin and uncle at youthful age of 15. “I was excited because everyone told me ‘America is the land of opportunity,'” he quips with a grin. The ambitious teenager settled in Los Angeles, cleaning golf balls at a country club while looking for better opportunities. One day, the telephone rang. “It was my cousins,” he recalls. “They told me I could make more money picking strawberries. I gathered my things and moved to Santa Maria.” Little did Cisneros know, Santa Barbara County would be his own personal land of opportunity.
“Picking strawberries in the field, I learned how the berries were planted, looked after, harvested and sold. That was my education – how to farm – and I was good at it. Soon it hit me that I could make a lot more if I owned my own plants.”
The self-taught farmer eventually saved enough hard-earned picking money to lease an acre of fertile soil. Eager to test his newfound knowledge, Cisneros planted his field with strawberries.
“I did okay with the berries,” he admits, “but every time I went to the supermarket, I couldn’t get over the price of chiles. And everyone was buying them, not just the Hispanics.”
Calling a halt to the little red berries, the determined young man replanted his field – this time with peppers – and the rest is history. As business flourished so did Cisneros’s passion for the pungent pods. He applied for loans form the USDA, which allowed him to increase his acreage. Before long, he had acquired over 1,000 acres from Santa Maria to Bakersfield. With the burgeoning chile peppers industry, Cisneros, now a U.S. citizen, found his niche and worked his way to success, one row of chile peppers at a time.
The Farmer & His Crop
Juan Cisneros is waiting for me in the blast-furnace heat, amidst a sea of pepper plants carpeting a 60-acre field. A sharp, tantalizing aroma rises to surround us. The farmer wipes a bead of sweat from his smooth skin and rolls up the sleeves of his checkered shirt. With a tip of his trademark cowboy hat, he shakes my hand, ready to take me along as he inspects his chiles being harvested on Alisos Canyon Road in the dusty town of Los Alamos.
“I’m usually up at 6:00 am to check the first field,” says the committed grower. “What I look for is the quality of the plants. Are there any diseases? Are animals eating the leaves? Are the peppers getting enough water? I’ll spend my mornings inspecting the crop.”
Cisneros plows his peppers fields after winter, installing miles of drip irrigation, which must be relayed every year. The plants, grown from seed at local nurseries, are 4-6″ when they make their way from plastic container to natural soil February through June. Sequential plantings throughout spring and early summer ensure that the peppers, which take three months to mature, are harvested over a six-month season (July to December), then the process begins all over again.
The “Chile Pepper King,” as he’s now known, claims his peppers are bigger, juicer, fresher tasting, and hotter because of his farming methods. Cisneros uses no machinery, from planting to picking. “When everything is done by hand,” he says, “attention and care is given to each individual plant, yielding the highest quality pepper available.” The eager farmer stops amidst the dense, high-high foliage. A colorful palate of superb chiles – yellow, orange, scarlet, and every shade of green – seek refuge under canopies of thick green leaves. Cisneros bends down and digs into the damp soil with his fingers, unearthing a healthy jalapeño pepper plant. “All my plants are buried deep in compact, nutrient-rich soil. You’ll never achieve this using a machine.” Cisneros pops a jumbo jalapeño from its stem, breaks open the pepper, then smells, inspects and tastes. His smile is proof that this season’s peppers will again be a cut above the rest.
Crossing the manicured field, carefully and meticulously maintained around-the-clock like that of a world-class-golf resort, Cisneros explains his afternoons are spent training and supervising the field crews. This is to make certain the peppers are planted, monitored, harvested, and boxed correctly. With a humble grin, the farmer adds. “The best part of my job is when there isn’t any disease, and the plants are loaded with bright, colorful peppers ready for picking.” For Cisneros, there is plenty to grin about.
As President of his company, Better Produce, Cisneros’s success story is uplifting, especially in today’s sluggish economy. Better Produce employs over 400 workers in the Central Coast with employment increasing every year. “I’m grateful to hire so many families that need work.” Cisneros even employs his family, which recently relocated from Mexico. ” My father, and brother Alfonso, help me out in the field, my sister Claudia and Jenny help in the office when not going to school, and my other brother, Jesus, is one of my bookkeepers.”
When asked if his wife, Rosa, lends a hand, Cisneros stretches a smile and says: “No, she prefers to take care of the kids, leaving me with the peppers.” The Cisneros’s have two young children, son Emiliano and daughter, Kasandra.
Just How Hot is Hot?
My gastronomy voyage takes me to the west end of the pepper field, where Cisneros shows me the hottest peppers on the market – the Habaneros.
“Chile peppers range from mild to throat-scorching,” he explains. “In general, the smaller the chile pepper the hotter it is. You want to be extremely careful when handling chiles, particularly kitchen. Plastic or rubber gloves are recommended. And whatever you do, do not touch your eyes after handling.”
In 1912, W.L. Scoville, an Englishman, came up with a scale using human taste-tasters. The Scoville Heat Units, although refined, is still used today to measure a pepper’ hotness. A Habanero, for instance, can tip the scale at 300,000 Scoville Units, while a jalapeño ranges between 3,000 and 5,000.
“All peppers can be classified as having either sweet or hot flesh,” adds Cisneros. “Bells and pimentos are sweet, while chile types are hot.”
I learn that the pepper’s hotness is caused by an oily substance called capsaicin located in yellow sacks or pustules on the inside wall of the pepper pod. A long as these sacks are not broken, a hot pepper will remain mild, However, rough handling during harvest, picking, or simply biting into a pepper can increase a pepper’s hotness. Cisneros tells me capsaicin also prevents most animals from eating the chiles, allowing only fruit-eating birds and pesky ground squirrels the pleasurable feast.
Since capsaicin is distributed into the pepper’s seeds, Cisneros suggests removing them when cooking to turn down the heat. “Always start with a small amount and add more to taste if desired,” he says, noting that: “cooking does not diminish the heat.” To cool your palate, never drink water. The best remedy, according to Cisneros, is to put out the fire using dairy products such as milk, yogurt, sour cream or ice cream.
Cisneros plucks a Habanero and raises the infamous peppers to his lips. With laugh, he tosses it aside. “Just kidding, they’re too hot to eat this way.”
Flavors from the Field
Without question, chile peppers have been tingling human taste buds for centuries, adding spark and interest to many of our favorite dishes -chile, nachos, guacamole, salsas, chutneys, curries, and Cajun cooking. Peppers are widely used in cuisines of Mexico and Latin America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, China and India.
Cisneros’s peppers are sold by the truckload to major distributors, the nearest being in Los Angeles. The chiles are then shipped to markets around the country and worldwide. For Santa Barbarans, Cisneros’s chiles are available locally. The best way to purchase his peppers – fresh from the field – is directly from the farmer himself. Otherwise, Cisneros suggested trying Farmer’s Market I downtown Santa Barbara, El Toro Market in Santa Maria, or the local Albertson’s. His product is distributed under the name Better Produce or Grown Rite.
Cisneros advises that when shopping for fresh chiles, always choose those that are glossy, firm and free from soft spots and blemishes. His peppers, available in so many sumptuous varieties and colors, look and taste spectacular because his crews handpick every pepper, which are immediately boxed and cooled to prevent decay. Pepper cartons are placed in specially designed refrigeration coolers so forced-air can remove the field heat, permitting a longer shelf life.
Once you have chosen your peppers, Cisneros recommends keeping them in sealed plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper. Chiles will store for up to a week. To freeze chiles, simply slit open and remove the seeds, dice or cut into strips or leave whole, and place in freezer bags.
As for chile aficionados, there are many ways to serve chiles. Chile relleno and chicken fajitas with peppers are Cisneros’s favorites. “Always with peppers,” he adds. “They makes every dish more exciting.”
Given the time constraints upon home cooks these days, chiles are easy to prepare whether it’s stuffing them with cheese or adding them to fresh salsas.
Before heading to his next field, the “King of Peppers” offers several simple recipes. These tried and true favorites, he says, are sure to please.
Santa Maria,CA 93454
Phone: (805) 739-0795