Carol hot on seek­ing help

NZ Grower - - Product Group Onions Nz - By Glenys Christian

Opotiki chilli grower Carol Wheeler is a strong be­liever that if you put your mind to any­thing it can be achieved. And she urges other grow­ers to make full use of in­dus­try as­sis­tance and knowl­edge that's freely avail­able. “Peo­ple shouldn't be afraid of ask­ing for help,” she said. “In this business net­work­ing is the key.”

She was pre­vi­ously in­volved in the grow­ing of ap­ples, pears and a va­ri­ety of mar­ket gar­den prod­ucts just north of Opotiki. Her business part­ner, Dave Jamieson, grew watermelons for seed tri­als only, but five years ago Carol saw a gap in the mar­ket for chillies. “All the cook­ing pro­gramme pre­sen­ters were say­ing chillies, chillies, chillies,” she said. “I won­dered why we weren’t grow­ing them when there were none around.” They started off on half an acre but that’s now been ex­tended to three times that size with chillies grown be­hind her house, where a pack­ing shed has been set up, and on two leased blocks at Omaio, a short dis­tance away. They grow 17 dif­fer­ent chilli va­ri­eties, rang­ing from the mild to the su­per hot, with 17,000 to 20,000 plants put in ev­ery year, pro­duc­ing 12 to 15 tonnes of chillies. Plant­ing out of seedlings be­gins in Septem­ber and car­ries on through to De­cem­ber with pick­ing start­ing in mid-Jan­uary of the ser­rano and the jalapeño va­ri­eties. This is fol­lowed by cayenne, ha­banero, pablano and bird­s­eye chillies, with pick­ing stop­ping around Au­gust. The cayenne va­ri­ety, which makes up over 75% of the chillies grown be­cause most peo­ple like it, is planted at the end of

She's a great be­liever in per­sonal con­nec­tion with buy­ers and for that rea­son has been a reg­u­lar at the Ohope Craft Mar­ket and the Whakatane Farm­ers' Mar­ket from the be­gin­ning. “I'm a real peo­ple per­son,” she said. “I have to have that con­tact.”

Oc­to­ber. Nine staff are em­ployed ca­su­ally for the pick­ing and pack­ing, with chillies mar­keted un­der the Chilli Patch brand sold through­out New Zealand. Ser­rano is also a very mild va­ri­ety, jalapeño is fairly mild and ha­banero, which makes up around 20% of her crop, “quite hot”. At the other end of the heat spec­trum are bird­s­eye chilli and the ghost chilli, named be­cause of its pale ap­pear­ance. When it comes to colour, Carol warns those sam­pling chillies that whether they’re red or green just de­ter­mines their stage of ma­tu­rity, it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence to their strength. The ro­cotto va­ri­ety is avail­able fresh all year round and so are the frozen cayenne, ha­banero, jalapeño and ser­rano chillies along with bird­s­eye, ha­banero and cayenne dried chillies. Pablano, a dark green va­ri­ety, has been grown for the last two years and has no dis­cern­able heat. It’s best cut open length­wise and baked, Carol said. She’s a great be­liever in per­sonal con­nec­tion with buy­ers and for that rea­son has been a reg­u­lar at the Ohope Craft Mar­ket and the Whakatane Farm­ers’ Mar­ket from the be­gin­ning. “I’m a real peo­ple per­son,” she said. “I have to have that con­tact.” She sells dried chillies, chipo­tle, which is a smoked whole jalapeño chilli, and fresh chillies only at farm­ers’ mar­kets, but she’s also worked out ways to make the chilli sen­sa­tion eas­ier to ob­tain for both shop­pers and avowed food­ies. Chopped chilli and con­serve are avail­able in jars along with a mor­eish jalapeño jelly. More re­cently she’s de­vel­oped spouches, sa­chets of a chilli mix­ture with a plas­tic screw top for easy use, dried chillies and chipo­tle. Th­ese are all pro­duced by a company with all the nec­es­sary food pro­cess­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. The spouches were in­tro­duced last Christ­mas when Carol and Dave be­came aware they could over-pro­duce for the fresh chilli mar­ket so needed an al­ter­na­tive prod­uct that would store un­til

re­quired. They come in three va­ri­eties, chilli con­serve, which is fairly mild and can be used with meat and fish or in dips or salad dress­ings; chopped chilli which comes in a medium hot va­ri­ety, use­ful in mari­nades when mixed with red wine vine­gar; and very hot strength, which can be added to stir-fries or ta­cos for a spicy meal. The mar­ket is still be­ing de­vel­oped with Carol tak­ing on board com­ment from her cus­tomers at the two week­end mar­kets. She also gets them to try out the smoked and dried chilli prod­ucts she’d like to sell to a wider range of shop­pers s in the fu­ture. Ex­ports are po­ten­tially in their sights, and here she’s very grate­ful for the as­sis­tance she’s re­ceived from Hor­ti­cul­ture New Zealand. “You don’t have to go to a con­fer­ence to get help,” she said. She picked up the phone and talked to Fresh Vegetables business man­ager, John Seymour, about the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­port­ing fresh chillies to South Korea when she wanted fur­ther in­for­ma­tion. While this wasn’t a goer she said she would like to look at ex­ports to Aus­tralia in the near fu­ture. “You have to take baby steps and peo­ple will guide you on your way,” she said. She be­lieves her spouches would sell well there. “I think I’ve got the pack­ag­ing right but it’s been a lot of trial and er­ror and a lot of peo­ple have helped me on my way.” She also found help from the in­dus­try or­gan­i­sa­tion when her crops were hit by the potato psyl­lid, but hopes bet­ter con­trol mea­sures mean the pest is less of a con­cern in the fu­ture. Now she urges other grow­ers not to hold back be­cause of wor­ries about com­pe­ti­tion from their coun­ter­parts as the in­for­ma­tion they’re after is all out there just wait­ing for them to ac­cess it. “There are a lot of hur­dles, but don’t be afraid,” she said. “Net­work while you think about it. You’ve just got to be brave and go for it.” This was most cer­tainly the case when she and Dave talked about the pos­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing a ma­chine which would per­form four labour-in­ten­sive op­er­a­tions in just one ac­tion. It ro­tary hoes beds for the chilli seedlings to be planted into as well as lay­ing wa­ter lines, fer­tiliser and black plas­tic needed on the outer edges of the trench. Th­ese jobs can now be com­pleted in un­der two min­utes when pre­vi­ously two hours was re­quired. “The sav­ing in labour costs is amaz­ing,” she said. “Dave had al­ways wanted this sort of ma­chine so I said to him, ‘Let’s build your baby’.” It took six months of work with ap­pli­ca­tions to the Min­istry of Business, In­no­va­tion and Em­ploy­ment (MBIE) and the help of a lo­cal en­gi­neer as well as ad­vice from Alan Richards from New Zealand Trade and En­ter­prise’s Bay of Plenty Re­gional Part­ners Pro­gramme. “It was dif­fi­cult to fill out the pa­per­work and you had to know what you were want­ing,” she said. “It was a huge process, but if you do as you’re asked to do it’s easy. We wouldn’t have built the ma­chine with­out it. I en­cour­age grow­ers to go out there and find peo­ple to help them.” With Dave now in his 70s, Carol is a strong be­liever in ac­cess­ing “the amaz­ing amount of knowl­edge old grow­ers have got to of­fer”. “Age is no limit – we’ve achieved a lot but there’s a lot more to do.” A good ex­am­ple is the re­cent up­grade of the company’s web­site www.chill­i­patch. com car­ried out by her son Ti­mothy who has also de­signed their logo and writ­ten a guide to the dif­fer­ent prod­ucts so cus­tomers have plenty of in­for­ma­tion about how the chillies are grown and their var­i­ous uses. Carol said two es­sen­tials for grower suc­cess were to be­lieve in what they were do­ing and to ad­here to rules and reg­u­la­tions. She urges them to be se­lec­tive about what they spend as well. “Al­ways keep in the black,” she said. “No one can take it away from you.” She has no time at all for those who take a neg­a­tive at­ti­tude and com­plain. “It’s a long jour­ney but it’s achiev­able and man­age­able,” she said. “The process is there. All you have to do is pick up the phone.”

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