Jeff and Jolene Stratton never expected to become “the pepper people.”
The couple moved to Tennessee from Colorado in 2009. Originally from Arizona, both are retired from careers in law enforcement. During their 10 years in Colorado, they lived and worked a variety of second-career jobs ranging from retail to railroads to education.
Along the way, they grew gardens and enjoyed the pastime. “We’d always grown peppers and veggies to some degree,” says Jeff Stratton. “In Arizona we grew things in barrels because the ground is so hard. In Colorado we had fields and irrigation, but when we moved to Tennessee we discovered raised beds and it makes growing so much easier.”
They also discovered how much they missed chile peppers. “Out West, especially in Arizona, roasted chiles are sold everywhere,” Stratton says. “Little stands with roasters are all over the place. Roasted chiles have a very distinctive flavor and aroma. When we got here, we missed them and we thought we’d start growing, and then people would request them, and then next thing we know we’re selling chiles at the farmers market.
“Our first planting was in two raised beds in summer of 2010. Now we've expanded to 20 beds with 49 varieties of chile from 15 countries, plus some assorted herbs and other veggies. We have peppers from Asia, Africa, South America, India.”
While the garden area is about the size of an average two-car garage, the pepper operation is spread throughout and around the Stratton’s Jonesborough home. They start seed in late January under lights in the basement, then transfer plants to a small outdoor greenhouse before setting them out in garden beds in late April or early May.
The Strattons produce is Certified Naturally Grown, a certification process very similar to organic certification. They grow to CNG standards of sustainability – without pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers. They also make their own growing soil from composted materials.
The Strattons call their operation “Chapo’s Chile Patch.” “’Chapo’ means ‘little short guy’and that’s what they called me when I was in the police force,” says Jeff. “Chile we spell with an e. That’s the Spanish spelling used out west. You can spell it chilli or chili, but to me ‘chili’ is what you serve in a bowl.”
The Strattons started selling at the Jonesborough Farmers Market in 2011 and have been expanding their reach ever since. In addition to the Jonesborough market, they sell their peppers and powders at markets in Johnson City and ETSU. They also sell direct from their website and to restaurants, including the Parson’s Son Barbeque restaurant (for their hottest barbecue sauce).
They’ve been winning prizes too. “Our chiles have won awards at various county fairs and growing contests,” Stratton says. “We took nine prizes in at the Greene County Fair in 2011.”
The Stratton’s chile powders also garnered national attention last year with a mention in Paula Deen’s September 2012 magazine.
Chiles have also added another dimension to the Stratton’s community involvement. Already involved with St. Mary’s Church, the Jonesborough Kiwanis Club, Toastmasters, the Storytelling Guild, and three quilting guilds, the Strattons now provide chiles and volunteer time to the Farmers Market’s Farm to Table fundraiser and also to Second Harvest's Farmer and the Chef Fundraiser. During Jonesborough days they co-sponsor the hot chile pepper eating contest with the town and this year they plan to help with the October chili-cook-off.
But “the goal is to enjoy ourselves,” Stratton says. And, he says, they most enjoy interacting with their customers and educating people about the world of chiles. Stratton loves to talk about chiles, and loves the opportunity to describe Scoville thermal units that measure pepper heat.
“After three seasons, we have certain customers who come looking for that special pepper – the Spanish Padron, that Turkish Corbaci, the world's hottest Ghost pepper, that Brazilian Uba Tuba and of course the roasted NuMex green chiles. If you’ve got a favorite chile, come talk to me. If you’ve never had a good chile, come taste them and try them. You owe it to yourself.”
A favorite recipe from Chapo’s Chile Patch: Stuffed Cheese and Bacon Chile Poppers