South Devon Chilli Farm began as a hobby, with chillies being grown in back garden greenhouses. Since then, it has grown into a full-time business.
In 2005, a fellow farmer offered to sell 10 acres of precious farmland. On this new land, they built a large barn to house a production kitchen and a storage facility for the huge number of jars and bottles they were starting to get through each month.
They then added six polytunnels; one as a plant nursery, four as production tunnels, and one as a display show tunnel, which features around 200 chilli varieties with all sorts of chilli fruit shapes, sizes, and colours.
Today, with two further polytunnels and a farm shop/cafe, the farm is a bustling centre for all things spicy. Locavore spoke to Heather Waters, one of the founders of the farm, about chillies, the challenges of the Devon climate, and the move from hobbyists to professionals.
You started out growing chillies as a hobby. When and why did you decide to start a business?
Yes, it started as a fun hobby, and the growth to bigger tunnels, cooking, and making sauces and chocolates just seemed a natural progression. The products were so well received and were selling well, and so it was satisfying and rewarding. We became so busy that, in 2003, we had to make a decision on whether to make it a full time occupation, take the gamble of giving up our day jobs and try to make a living from it. Luckily the gamble paid off and we are still here, in business and growing today!
Was it a challenge to scale up what was essentially a cottage industry to where you are now?
It was and still is a challenge; the more people get involved the more juggling has to happen. And problem solving is an almost daily task. Although we are still a relatively small company with a team of 19, including the four owners.
How many varieties of chillies do you grow? And do you have a favourite to grow, and to cook with?
We grow over 200 varieties to display in our Show Tunnel for visitors. As crop plants we grow about 15 to 20 varieties in a range of heats from mild to super hot. We also grow about 50 – 60 varieties of pot plants. One of our favourites is the Pimiento de Padron chilli which is great when picked small and cooked as a tapas dish – fried in a little oil and sea salt.
Do you grow any rare or heritage varieties?
Most of the varieties we grow are rare in that you don’t find them in the supermarkets. We also grow the current hottest in the world which is the Carolina Reaper chilli.
You have a wide range of chilli products, from jams to sauces to chocolate. From where do you draw inspiration for recipes? And is there a lot of experimentation involved?
The chilli chocolate inspiration came from the Aztecs use of chilli in a cocoa and chilli drink. Other inspirations came from making our own version of popular products and making use of ingredients that we had in our local area, eg. elderflower chilli jelly made with apples and hedgerow elderflowers. It does involve a lot of experimentation and a lot of taste testing to make sure we get the flavour and chilli heat levels just right.
You import some products, such as Aleppo chillies. Who do you source these from?
Over the years we have worked with various importers to find quality dried chillies that we do not have the space to grow and dry for ourselves. This leaves us room to specialise in growing the chilli varieties that are harder to import and which are suited to our climate and growing in polyunnels.
Do you grow organically?
We are not certified as organic, but we try to grow responsibly and we use a variety of biological pest controls.
Where do you source your chocolate for your chilli chocolate products?
For our standard chilli chocolate range we use a Belgian chocolate. We also use two single origin chocolates, one from Costa Rica and one from Madagascar (which is a Raise Trade product).
How is sustainability integrated into the business?
The sustainable side of our business is probably demonstrated in some of our growing techniques including composting of our cooking waste, growing comfrey plants for green fertiliser, using bees for pollination, using biological pest controls, growing seasonally. We are also providing a UK/local source of chilli products, employing local people, supporting other food producers in the region, and educating and encouraging people to grow their own chillies from our pot plants. We try to mainly use glass and cardboard in our packaging which can then be recycled, and we recycle all of our cardboard, plastic, glass and metal waste.
You now have a permanent farm shop and cafe. How would you describe the food you serve?
We serve tasty breakfasts, lunches, cream teas and homemade cakes – everything is cooked from scratch on the premises with a lot of local ingredients including some of our chillies, although not everything is hot and spicy. We have our chilli sauces readily available so you can add the level of chilli heat you want. We have a varied menu with some seasonal specials and our popular year round offerings of beef or vegetarian chilli nachos and sweet or savoury cream tea with our delicious chilli jam.
Chillies are not something traditionally grown in Devon. What challenges did you have when designing your growing systems?
The main challenges are avoiding the frosts at the start of the year when we have delicate seedlings, and the growth of botrytis moulds during the colder, wetter periods at the end of the year. Apart from that the chillies seem to thrive well in polytunnels here in the generally mild Devon climate, with a little help from specialised heating early in the season.
How do you think the changing political landscape might affect business, both for you and for the wider UK food supply?
We have noticed some price rises already since Brexit with some of our suppliers who rely on importing items. This means that, unfortunately, we have to also raise our prices.
What plans do you have for 2018?
We are really happy to be able to launch a new range of chilli ketchup and BBQ sauce this year.
What are your hopes and fears for the future, for South Devon Chilli Farm and for the wider world of sustainable food?
We hope to keep inventing new products and encouraging people to experiment with all kinds of chillies.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
We keep doing what we do because we receive such great feedback from our customers, and it makes us proud of our products.
For the South Devon Chilli Farm website, click here.
Find them on Twitter here.
Images © South Devon Chilli Farm.