The Crazy Chile Farm was formed in 2014 to support the food relief programs of Transfiguration Episcopal Church. We live in a State where hunger is endemic. In Arizona 1 in 4 children, 1 in 5 adults, and 1 in 6 seniors are at risk for adequate daily food. Our response was to create an all-volunteer non-profit farm growing a 400 year-old un-hybridized landrace chile pepper. Chile was selected because spicy foods are a trending item in high demand in the gourmet market and, fortunately, grows quite well in our low desert climate.
Since its inception, profits from the sale of our chile powder have been used to support our local community, by funding food distribution agencies of the Feeding America Food Bank system. We also fund programs in our local public school systems to support underfunded students, food support for a large women’s shelter, and other outreach programs at Transfiguration and in The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. In 2016 over $5600 was provided for outreach. Likewise, the 2017 crop got off to an exceptional start, and in March and April we were able to provide over $1000 in grants to Million Meals, Project Help, and Lutheran Social Service’s Refugee Focus Program. But then we hit a “speed bump”.
In early May, we picked over 150 pounds of ripe chiles—a record for that month. Yet by the end of the month it had become apparent that about 80% of our only field was inexplicably near death. After examination of our fields by U. of A. Cooperative Extension and an independent agricultural laboratory, our crop was diagnosed with Verticillium wilt, a fungal infection causing irreversible vascular failure in chile peppers and other members of the Solenacea family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants).
Nevertheless, while the harvest was down, it did not disappear. We continued to produce enough revenue to cover our operational expenses (including our water bill!) for 2017. And by working with our sister program, A Million Meals for our Neighbors and our summer parishioners, we were able to provide funding for 27,500 pounds of food for Hurricane Harvey relief—an extraordinary project that gained us national recognition!
Our current objective is to recover our revenue base, to enable us to provide even more food support in our local community, and additional funding for disaster relief food. To that end, we recently opened a second growing field. This will enable crop rotation between Field #1 and Field #2 to reduce pathogen build-up in our soil, give us the space to diversify our product offering with different crops, and increase the size of our harvest. If you haven’t seen it yet, Field #2 is located behind the Parish Hall on what used to be a dirt parking area. “Ripping” the new field was a project. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bob DeSpiegelaere and Liz Farmer for renting a John Deere Tractor and doing the initial plowing. We also are indebted to Laura Ward and her manager Todd for initial disc and plow work in the new field with her team of Clydesdales, and continuing to bring the horses back for additional work.
In November, The Farm was invited to participate in an agricultural funding program called “Seed Money”. We subsequently earned $800, which will permit us to buy a greenhouse to enable our farmers to start our own seedlings in an "all-weather" facility. This will give us better control of our seedling production, higher volume, and better quality seedlings. Currently seed flats are sent home with individual farmers in January, with sometimes disappointing results. Having our own greenhouse will also allow us to recover more rapidly if we are afflicted with transplant failure or pathogen attacks. If this project is successful it will allow us to gain at least a month on our growing season, lengthen our harvest time, and hopefully enable a 20% to 25% increase in annual revenue.
As we move into the first quarter of 2018 we give thanks to all those who have encouraged and supported our “sometimes fumbling” efforts. The love, patience and enthusiasm extended to us by the clergy and people of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and of The Church of the Transfiguration in Mesa has been extraordinary. We are also especially thankful for the help and information provided by U. 0f A. Cooperative Extension, the Arizona Dept. of Agriculture Advisory Council on Food and Agriculture, the Association of Community Gardeners of Maricopa County, A&P Nursery, Native Seeds/Search, Tenth Generation Farm in Apache Junction, and David Archuleta, the Farm and Ranch Mgr. at the New Mexico State University Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Alcalde NM. But, most especially, we thank our own volunteer chile farmers for their tireless energy, extraordinary insights, and constant efforts to improve our processes, our service, and the quality of our products. Our hearts have been truly touched!