Califonia Bountiful

Pepper pizazz

Aug. 2012 California Bountiful magazine

California crop takes you from sweet to heat.

Santa Clara County farmer Pete Aiello oversees the harvest of green bell peppers, which takes place at night because of the vegetable's sensitivity to extreme heat.

Depending on the variety, California-grown peppers bring sweet or heat to cuisine from around the world—and in your kitchen, favorite restaurant or local deli.

"If you are eating a pepper anywhere on the West Coast or in other parts of the United States, there's a good chance that it came from us," said Pete Aiello, who owns and operates one of the largest pepper farms in the country with his father, Joe. "You can find our fresh peppers in the produce department and also in sandwich shops."

The father-and-son team runs Uesugi Farms, a family operation that includes Joe's wife, Katie, and Pete's wife, Wendy. The business is based in Gilroy, where conditions are ideal for growing a variety of crops. As first- and second-generation farmers, Joe and Pete grow, pack and ship an assortment of vegetables, but specialize in peppers—from sweet varieties like red bells to tongue-scorchers like the Bhut Jolokia.

Most plentiful during the summer months, the pepper is a warm-season crop that thrives at temperatures of 75 to 85 degrees. Joe and Pete grow thousands of acres of peppers—near their headquarters in Gilroy, as well as in Bakersfield, Holtville, the Coachella Valley and Mexico—to meet year-round demand.

George Uesugi, above right, helped Joe Aiello, left, get started in farming. As a tribute, Joe retained the name Uesugi Farms after purchasing the business.

The majority of their pepper acreage consists of green, red and yellow bell peppers. In times of high summer temperatures, bell pepper harvest starts in late afternoon and runs until midnight or beyond.

"Picking peppers in cooler temperatures is not only more comfortable for employees, but also better for green bell peppers, which are sensitive to sustained periods of sunlight and extreme heat," Pete said.

Once harvested, the Aiellos' crop is graded, packed into boxes and placed in a 45-degree cooler. The fresh bells are then shipped to grocery stores and fast-food chains throughout the United States; the spicier pepper varieties are processed and sold in the form of brand-name products that, in some cases, are also shipped to markets overseas.

Agriculture inspired Joe from an early age. He grew up working alongside his father, who owned a trucking company that hauled fruit and vegetables for Central Valley farmers. As a teen, Joe also helped his uncle in Rio Vista by driving a water truck during the planting of processing tomatoes.

Pete Aiello, right, joined his father, Joe, at Uesugi Farms in 2002.

"I liked the experience of being around agriculture and I had some good role models," he said.

Another role model for Joe is his longtime friend and mentor George Uesugi, original owner of Uesugi Farms. In the late 1970s, Joe and Katie became friends with George, now in his mid-80s. George noticed a work ethic and a drive in Joe that led to his offer to sell the business to the younger man upon retirement. As a tribute to George's generosity, Joe retained the Uesugi name.

"If you are a first-generation farmer in today's world, it is really hard to get an opportunity like we had," Joe said. "George actually financed our operation for the first year or two."

Uesugi Farms is one of the nation's largest pepper farms, where varieties range from sweet—such as the bell peppers above—to spicy.

About his decision to help Joe get established in farming, Uesugi proudly stated, "I'd known Joey awhile, and there wasn't better people to help get started."

Joe began by growing napa cabbage, strawberries and spicy peppers, but Uesugi Farms really made a name for itself with the peppers. The company began growing these peppers in the 1970s for processors to use for salsas, sauces and purees; bell peppers were added in the late 1980s.

As the business grew, Pete came on board in 2002 to help his father manage the farm. Working in agriculture is more than just a job for Pete; it's a lifestyle.

"I am so fortunate and blessed to have a job where I can be outside, work with my family and run our own business," Pete said. "Growing up, I definitely was 100 percent boy—playing in the dirt and driving tractors and other farm equipment. I can't imagine being anywhere else."

The Aiellos say they expect the demand for all types of peppers—sweet and hot—to continue to escalate.

"When we first started, there weren't a lot of people outside of the West Coast and the Southwest that really knew about peppers, especially the hot peppers," Pete said. "It has gone 'viral,' so to speak."

Peppers are the fruit of the Capsicum genus and are members of the nightshade family that includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. Although botanically described as fruit because the peppers contain the seeds of a plant, peppers are more commonly recognized as vegetables. Their varying degrees of heat come from capsaicin, a chemical compound concentrated in the internal membrane of the plant where the seeds are attached.

Part of the growth in popularity may be due to the pepper's chemical makeup. Researchers have found that capsaicin releases endorphins in the brain, making spicy food somewhat addictive.

"Even though it may be scorching the skin off of your mouth," Pete explained, "you find that for some strange reason, you just need more of it."

Joe and Pete Aiello run the family business with their wives, Katie and Wendy. Family meals often include peppers, such as in the kebabs 3-year-old Kayla helps prepare.

From mild to what Pete describes as "gnarly" hot, Uesugi Farms grows peppers at all levels on the Scoville heat index (which indicates the amount of capsaicin present). All are full of vitamin C and a variety of antioxidants, including lycopene, that have been shown to have disease-fighting and health-promoting properties.

"People really like the versatility of a pepper. It is a great flavoring agent when you add it to your cooking," Pete said. "You can choose all kinds of different varieties to get different combinations of flavor and heat."

While Pete enjoys spicing up Mexican food, his 3-year-old daughter, Kayla, likes helping to skewer bell pepper kebabs for grilling. And Joe's favorite way to eat peppers is Katie's crowd pleaser: a roasted yellow and red bell pepper hors d'oeuvre with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and Gorgonzola cheese—served with sliced baguettes.

"It makes a great little appetizer and has beautiful presentation," Joe said.

No matter how he picks them, growing peppers in California is exactly where Pete wants to be.

"I take pride in being a California farmer," he said. "And I'm extremely passionate about feeding people."

Joe and Pete's pepper guide

The Scoville scale measures the heat of a pepper in units from zero to a scorching 2 million. Here are some pepper pointers from Gilroy-based farmers Joe and Pete Aiello, who grow peppers in a wide range of heat levels.

Green, red and yellow bell peppers
Scoville level: 0
Thick-walled with a sweet, mild flavor (the reds and yellows have a slightly higher sugar content than the greens), these are often sautéed, roasted or grilled and used for stuffing, salads and casseroles.
Hot or sweet cherry (aka Hungarian cherry)
Scoville level: 0-5,000
Thick-fleshed without much of a cavity, these green or red peppers are almost exclusively for pickling.
Hungarian wax (aka banana wax)
Scoville level: 0-10,000
One type is 3 to 4 inches long with a thick, smooth skin; the other is 6 to 9 inches with a thin, crinkly skin. Some have no heat, while some will bring you to tears. Popular in sandwiches.
Scoville level: 500-2,000
Originally grown near Anaheim at the turn of the 20th century, these can be added to stews or salsas but are often used in chiles rellenos.
Poblano (aka pasilla)
Scoville level: 1,000-2,000
Rarely used in raw form, these are usually roasted or cooked, which gives them an earthy, smoky flavor. Their width makes them popular for stuffing.
Scoville level: 2,500-8,000
A classic and versatile pepper used for stuffing, dicing, pickling and garnishing. Jalapeños are popular on nachos, as poppers and in salsas.
Scoville level: 2,500-8,000
Generally hotter but a little sweeter than the jalapeño in Pete's experience (despite the same Scoville rating), these are ideal for diverse applications.
Scoville level: 8,000-23,000
Similar in flavor to the jalapeño but with an added kick, these are used in many of the same applications—although much more sparingly.
Scoville level: 200,000-600,000
These include the red savina, Scotch bonnet or classic orange. As the most popular of the "superhots," they must be incorporated into sauces and salsas to make them palatable.
Bhut Jolokia (aka ghost)
Scoville level: 855,000-1.1 million
Joe and Pete describe these—the hottest peppers they grow—as "gnarly" in both appearance and heat level.

Christine Souza

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