182. The Hottest Plot in the Garden

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Coop Name: Valley Natural Foods N° of Employees: 135
City: Burnsville N° of Members: 8887
Country: United States Year of formation: 1977
Website: http://www.valleynaturalfoods.coop Twitter: Link
Facebook: Link
About this coop:

Valley Natural Foods is a community-owned cooperative retailing organic, natural and local food and wellness products since 1977. In 2009 we opened up a dedicated gluten-free bakehouse to serve our store, other cooperatives and retailers in the greater Twin Cities area of Minnesota. This expansion was in response to a growing need within our community to have access to quality gluten-free baked goods. Who better than a co-op to step up to the call.

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Photo Credits: Gary Johnson

One late summer while strolling through a Minneapolis farmers market with my young teenager, I was introduced to one of the hottest chilies in the world. A handwritten sign, “Ghost pepper is the world’s hottest pepper” atop a little basket holding a handful of bright-orange, wrinkled fruits ignited my son’s interest.

The grower cautioned us about extreme spiciness, but also said the ghost pepper’s flavor was well worth the fuss: —just a tiny shard was enough to light up anything you cook. He also explained why they cost more than other peppers. Formally known as the “Bhut Jolokia,” we learned the ideal climate for growing them is in the hot hills of northeastern India. But raising the plants in Minnesota is difficult due to short, moderate summers. Yields are low if at all, yet growing them requires high maintenance, we were told. With pricey pepper in hand, we headed home.

The wild flavor had us hooked immediately, despite our stinging eyes and coughing caused by a pungent, yet appetizing aroma rising from the cut pepper. The piquance (or spicy heat) measurement of capsaicin has at least 1,000,000 Scoville Heat Units for ghost peppers, compared to 3000-8000 for jalapenos. My son’s interest fired up to fascination, and he suggested we save the seeds to grow our own.

Meanwhile my employer, Valley Natural Foods co-op, was busy transforming the store’s front lawn into garden plots. The co-op was living up to the value based on co-op principle number seven—concern for the community—by responding to our members’ overwhelming interest and need for community gardening. To manage the project, the co-op added a community relations developer to our staff to make certain Valley Natural Foods would meet this need of our members and neighbors.

As plot reservations filled up during winter, my saved ghost pepper seeds sprouted in little pots on an office window sill. Word spread like wildfire among staff and customers that ghost peppers would be growing in the new co-op community gardens.

The following summer, July brought a sweltering heat wave to the mid-west that kicked my pepper transplants into high gear. The number of peppers looked a little sparse among the ten plants, but you could see them glowing like bright orange embers under lush green leaves: —they were beautiful! Talk about a hot topic, who knew that ghost peppers would kindle so much conversation and relationship-building in the garden. What a great example that shows community gardening can thrive at a co-op.

As part of the co-op’s annual Farm Fest event in September, Valley Natural Foods conducted an educational community garden tour which included showing off those peppers. One co-op member even hunted me down in the parking lot to exclaim excitement over seeing Bhut Jolokia growing in Minnesota! What a thrill to share some zesty harvest from my small crop that day.

Even the co-op’s produce department joined in on this fiery adventure by offering some of the ghost peppers for sale to eager customers. One customer was delighted to get her hands on one because her young son’s interest had been sparked by the legendary ghost pepper for months.

Heated anticipation is on the rise for Valley Natural Foods’ second year of co-op community gardening. This year, one of our plant vendors will grow ghost pepper plants for us. If all goes well, the co-op hopes to offer these sizzling plants for sale to our gardening customers. With some hot weather and a little luck, we’ll be the co-op with the hottest plots in community gardening!

Author of this story
Susie Hessburg
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