Sep 18, 2015Hot sauce puts jalapeno grower on the hot list
Craig Underwood can’t explain exactly why Huy Fong Foods‘ Sriracha Hot Sauce has exploded in popularity in the last few years, but he can always speculate. For one thing, consumers have developed a taste for spicy products. For another, Huy Fong makes a tasty sauce.
That sauce is now shipped all over the world and has inspired a host of imitators – inferior imitators, in Underwood’s opinion, because they probably use chili powder instead of fresh peppers, and freshness is something Huy Fong insists on.
As the sole supplier of fresh peppers to Huy Fong Foods, Underwood’s bias is understandable. His Ventura County, California, farm operation grew 1,700 acres of peppers for the Irwindale-based sauce maker this season, and will grow more next season. In fact, the popularity of the Sriracha Hot Sauce that’s made with those peppers got Underwood profiled in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
That’s a lot of exposure for a fourth-generation vegetable grower. Underwood, 72, started farming with his father in 1968, but his family’s farming roots in southern California stretch back to the 1860s. The family grew lima beans in the old days, then focused on bell peppers, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables. They’ve been growing lemons for decades, and they also grow avocados, artichokes, fennel, Brussels sprouts, carrots and beets. They grow about 3,000 acres of crops total, but the main crop is the fresh jalapeno peppers – all grown for Huy Fong Foods.
Underwood’s relationship with the sauce-making company goes back more than 25 years, when he wrote founder David Tran a letter.
Tran, who is Chinese, departed communist-controlled Vietnam in 1979 on a Taiwanese freighter named Huey Fong (which inspired the name of his company). When he came to the United States, he resumed his career as a hot-sauce maker, selling product to local Asian restaurants and markets out of his van, according to Huy Fong’s website.
In the late 1980s, a seed supplier told Underwood that Tran might be looking for a jalapeno supplier, so Underwood wrote Tran and the sauce maker told him to start with 50 acres. The hot sauce business grew steadily and the partnership held together – and things really took off about half a dozen years ago, Underwood said. He’s now growing close to 2,000 acres of peppers, and the varieties keep changing to meet the company’s spiciness, color and processing requirements. To combat high costs and labor shortages, Huy Fong and Underwood have also partnered to mechanically harvest the jalapenos.
Underwood’s operation has an agritourism arm called Underwood Family Farms. He gets help managing everything from his wife, Sara Jane, and one of his two daughters, Suzannah. The agritourism segment employs about 60 people, both part- and full-time. The vegetable-growing segment employs about 150 year round and up to 400 seasonally, Underwood said.
The family’s involvement in farm marketing goes back to 1980, when they opened a produce stand. Direct sales made sense at the time, since they were in the best place in the country for producing fresh vegetables but that quality wasn’t reflected in local grocery stores, he said.
Today, they have agritourism operations in two locations; they sell produce via u-pick, CSA and farmers’ market; and they host festivals, tours, parties and other activities. Their petting zoos are very popular. The goal of it all is to reconnect people – especially children – to the farm, he said.