Sous chef turned farmer and entrepreneur puts French-inspired peppers in American kitchens

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Small-scale farming in America is still a challenge, says Krissy Scommegna of Boonville Barn Collective.

About 100 miles north of San Francisco, in the Anderson Valley, the small town of Boonville (population about 1,000) is home to the largest production of Piment d’Espelette peppers outside of France. It’s thanks to Scommegna and her husband Gideon Burdick who grow these unique peppers in abundance for chefs, and now home cooks too.

What began somewhat by chance as a business has grown into an example of small-scale production that is highly specialized. When Scommegna was working as a sous chef at The Boonville Hotel restaurant, she discovered the Espelette peppers: they were a bit like bell peppers, but with a bit more spiciness and complexity in flavor.

“These are not peppers you want to eat raw. But dried they give a nice taste and can be replaced in dishes with black pepper or chili pepper. They add layers of flavor with just a small amount.”

So naturally, Scommegna started growing them on her family’s farm while she worked in the kitchen. The first harvest was enough for the restaurant’s cuisine and that of some of the local chefs who became fans of its sweet but heated taste. This enthusiasm led Scommegna to grow a little more the following season, in an effort to satisfy the growing appetite of nearby restaurants. And over the years it has grown into a company that goes beyond just chefs. From 2012 to 2109, Scommegna built a business primarily for high-end restaurants. But the pandemic forced them to move their business.

“We had to quickly figure out how to become a direct-to-consumer brand in 2020. It just became a reality,” she says.

Grocers and independent food stores began stocking the product in the Anderson Valley and nearby counties, and they continued to sell through their website. Today, their products are sold to some 500 restaurants and more than 100 specialty stores.

Nacho Flores who works on the farm and oversees the production of peppers on 3 acre farms is from Michoacan, Mexican. “He really adapted what he already knew about growing to growing the Espelettee peppers and likes to experiment to see what works best,” says Scommegna.

The Espelette peppers are grown in France and named after the town of Espelette where they come from. They are common in Basque cuisine and are a staple of the cuisine. Yet here in Boonville they are called Piment d’Ville. Just as champagne isn’t called champagne unless it comes from that specific region, the Espelette peppers retain that right, too, making them an expensive import that can be found in limited quantities in specialty stores across the US.

Therefore, Scommegna sees an opportunity to bring something exclusive and hard to find to more consumers here in America, transformed into a California pepper. On about 6 hectares, Scommegna and her team have divided the land wisely to accommodate 80,000 pepper plants (of more than 12 varieties), but they also grow an assortment of other crops: olives, dried beans and even strawberries. Much of this is to help create a variety of products for Boonville Barn Collective and extend the harvest season. Of course, many of these crops also help regenerate the soil, says Scommegna.

“By having more specialties and peppers that have different seasons, we can offer customers an interesting assortment instead of just one variety. Moreover, we can continue to harvest plants all year round.”

However, everything still happens on the farm: the peppers are grown with last season’s seeds. Then harvested and dried on site. Soon after, they are crushed and packaged in glass jars and shipped to customers – all from the farm.

These kinds of hyper-local operations are possible because they still farm on a small scale by industry standards. But Scommegna is fine with that. She’s less interested in creating a chili or spice empire, and more so in serving the needs of chefs and gourmets who want to discover heirloom varieties and less readily available items.

“We also take great pride in paying all our employees. No one works on our farm for free or for barter room and board. This can make our products more expensive. But we think that’s the true cost of farm-raised produce in Northern California,” she says.

While all farming is organic, Scommegna explains that they have not pursued certification. Instead, they adopted the Renegade certificate, which is only available in California’s Mendocino County. The Renegade program, she says, started because growers wanted to go beyond USDA organic.

“It is actually stricter than the national program. And it’s designed specifically for growers here in the province. We have a different climate, soil and growing environment than farmers in the Midwest and East Coast, so we wanted something specific to the needs of the local community. Mendocino County was also the first county to ban GMOs in the US.”

It is this enthusiasm for organically grown, local produce that Scommegna wants to continue. It’s been more than ten years since she harvested the first peppers in Boonville. “Building this kind of business is not easy. You have to think about the sustainability of the soil, the people, the company, and balance it all.” But the challenge continues to feed her.