PEARCE, Ariz. – Chances are, if you’ve enjoyed a chile pepper or any type of chile product recently, those peppers can trace their origins back to the 1500 acres that make up Ed Curry’s farm in the Sulfur Springs Valley, 80 miles southeast of Tucson.
Curry Farms is, and has been, the center of chile pepper innovation and development since Curry, 59, first began implementing Mendelian crossbreeding genetics back in the 1970s to improve his chiles. He spends years carefully selecting and breeding pepper plants to develop specific characteristics, such as a standardized heat level and greater drought tolerance, so he can create new and better varieties of peppers.
Because Curry’s work requires such an inordinate amount of time and passion, he has developed a reputation within the industry as one of the best, and only, innovators.
His innovations have led to large canneries and food companies, like Buena Foods, almost exclusively using his seeds on their farms. New Mexico, which proudly touts and markets its red and green chiles as the nation’s best, almost exclusively uses his seeds. Even internationally, in countries like South Africa and Israel, Curry has developed a loyal group of farmers dedicated to his product.
“There’s maybe one or two pepper canners in the world that don’t use our seed. If you go to the store and buy a can of chile, there is a 90 percent chance the seed comes from us,” says Curry.
Part of the reason Curry was able to successfully corner a large portion of the market is simply because the chile industry is so small.
Arizona’s chile pepper industry, valued at just over $2 million, represents just one percent of the nation’s chile production.
For comparisons sake, watermelon, a crop that in no way bears the same amount of cultural significance to the Southwest as chile peppers do, makes up 12 times as much of Arizona’s total crop production.
Companies like Monsanto have cornered the markets of more profitable crops like corn and soybeans. They are behind almost all the genetic advancement for those crops and provide most of the seed farmers use.
Crops with significantly smaller profit margins, like chile, are left alone by large companies, which allows passionate, talented people like Ed Curry to make a name for himself using simpler, more natural methods.
The genetic crossbreeding he uses to develop his chile varieties are rooted in the fundamental, but time consuming, methods that Gregor Mendel pioneered in the mid-1800s and should not be confused with the controversial, modern practices that lead to products like non-browning apples.
With white hair, a smile-wrinkled face, and wearing more Carhartt clothing than a Montanan rancher, Curry hardly seems like a man who is essentially the Walter White of the chile pepper industry. What makes Curry such a determined, dedicated farmer is his belief that he can make the best chiles in the world, something he would never have pursued if not for his parents.
“I got from my mother, the quest to improve the little-bitty things and I got from my father the drive and need to accomplish and produce in the field,” says Curry.
Growing up in Southeastern Arizona, between the Dragoon Mountains and the Chiricahua Mountains, Curry was put to work on the family farm from an early age, an upbringing he attributes to his parents German and Irish roots. While working the fields, Curry developed a fierce appreciation for the chile peppers that his dad grew.
“Chile was important to us. It meant that if we did a little better farming, we could wear better clothes to school,” says Curry. “It just meant a better livelihood.”
The impression left on Curry was so substantial, that at just eight-years-old he knew chile was his calling in life.
Phil Villa, a family friend who worked with Curry’s dad growing up, recognized his interest and helped him understand the genetics behind breeding great chile.
This mentorship was invaluable to Curry and it sparked his curiosity, inspiring him to develop a better product and ultimately leading to the development of his first chile in the 1980s, the Arizona 20.
The Arizona 20 pepper, which he released publicly in 1993, represented an important milestone for not just Curry, but the entire chile pepper industry.
When Curry first started working on his father’s farm, standardized and controlled heat variability was almost unheard of in commercial pepper production. According to Curry, peppers from the same type of plant could have a difference in heat of almost 600 scovilles, the standard measurement of chile pepper heat.
To put that variability in perspective, 600 scovilles is roughly the difference between a banana pepper, and a relatively low-heat pepper, like a jalapeño.
A variation that significant can spell trouble for companies like the Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company, Curry Farm’s sister company located in Tumacacori, which rely on consistent and stable heat levels for their chile based products.
Owner Jean Neubauer, who has known Curry since they were both kids and exclusively uses his chile peppers, says that it is difficult to sell commercial chile products, like her company’s chile paste, if the peppers they use do not have a standardized heat level.
“The American consumer has come to expect food products to be exactly the same each time they open a can or jar,” says Neubauer. “Although Mother Nature reinvents herself each year, Curry’s genetic work keeps a consistent quality and heat level that keeps our customers satisfied.”
Salsa manufacturer Pace Foods use capsaicin extract, the active component of chile peppers that makes them spicy, as a shortcut to control the amount of heat in their salsas and other chile products.
Both a mild and hot salsa from Pace will use the same type of sweet jalapeño, but the company will add more capsaicin to the hot salsa than a mild. This way, their product is consistent in flavor and heat, which means they don’t get angry letters from mothers whose toddlers were left bawling after eating a supposedly mild salsa.
However, smaller companies don’t have the resources to develop both their own sweet jalapeño and add capsaicin as needed. That is why the consistent heat level of Curry’s chiles are so important to Neubauer and the rest of the industry.
Curry recognized the market’s need for peppers with minimal heat variability and began developing a chile with a variability of only 50-150 scovilles, a dramatic improvement over old chile varieties.
This variety, the Arizona 20, quickly became the standard of green and red chile in the United States and represented the start of Curry’s quest to revolutionize chiles.
For Curry and his farm, the 20 is just the beginning. He is developing chile peppers with a thinner waxy skin, better disease resistance, and more color pigment, which the makeup industry uses in lipstick.
He even coyly suggests that one day he would like to revolutionize the candy industry by somehow crossing chocolate and chile flavor genes together.
Still determined to continue his innovative work, Curry remains inspiringly satisfied with all that he has already accomplished in the windswept Sulfur Springs Valley.
“If I die tomorrow, I’ll feel like I’ve lived a blessed life. I’ve been very lucky,” he says with a quiet smile on his face.
Gareth Farrell is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at email@example.com.
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