Diversity provides unique opportunity

May 22, 2014 7:00 am  • 

COBDEN — The United States began as a giant melting pot. That has not changed in the past 200 years.

People from different ethnic backgrounds are immigrating to the United States and are bringing their culture and taste buds with them.

Jerry and Carol Jimenez, owners of Darn Hot Peppers, Southern Illinois’ home of specialty peppers, know how this goes.

“There is so much diversity from Mexico, Korea and Africa,” Jerry explains.

“It is interesting to see people from Africa ask about a pepper from Mexico. They have it in their home country, but know it by a different name.”

The business, which was started 10 years ago, has struck a chord with people in the niche market of specialty peppers. The couple grows 21 varieties of peppers and makes spices, salsas and gourmet jellies.

“Our goal was to bring the Southwest to the Midwest,” Jerry explains.

“And, every Labor Day weekend, we hold our annual pepper festival so people who don’t usually eat peppers can come and try out the many varieties that we offer.”

Likewise, diversity has helped Linda Seyler and the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm in Albany Park on the north side of Chicago.

They have about 100 refugee families that help grow products for their on-site farmer’s market.

“A lot of the families are growing items from their home countries,” Linda explains.

“They mostly grow it for their own cooking, but our diverse customer base has realized that they can buy specialty items from their home countries here as well. They can’t find it locally grown anywhere but here.”

Products, such as bittemelon, opo squash, snake gourd, roselle, yardlong beans, many Asian greens and Egyptian malachia are just a few of the ethnic products they grow.

In addition to the on-site farmer’s market, the families are able to share their produce through Community Supported Agriculture or CSAs.

“We are a non-profit and our goal is to help these refugees, who were farmers in their own countries deal with different seasons and new crops here in the states,” Linda explains.

“They are able to learn from each other and eventually start their own business.”

The farm that began in 2012 is

in its third season and is looking to expand in the near future with new market opportunities.

“While a farmers market is the first step for all farmers, people who are looking to expand or even start their own business need to realize their market isn’t always local,” he explains.

“For example, our market is in Springfield and Chicago. That is where we get the most demand for our specialty peppers.”

After retiring from state government work and teaching, Jerry and Carol determined there was a lack of specialty peppers in the area and saw an opportunity to expand that market.

“Everyone plants pumpkins, peaches and apples in the area so we knew that wasn’t a way we wanted to go,” Jerry says. “And with land being super expensive, we knew a niche market was what was going to make us successful.”

Once farmers have found their market, keeping up appearances in that market is the second step to running a successful business.

Planting three acres of peppers each year by hand, the Jimenezes are quite busy throughout the growing season and have little time for marketing.

“I would like to do more marketing than what we do now,” Jerry notes. “But, that will come in time.”

However, his time isn’t spent just tending to his peppers.

Jerry works with Richard Weinzierl, one of the coordinators of the New Illinois Fruit and Vegetable Farmers project, which is supported by a beginning farmer and rancher development grant from the USDA.

They work together to reach out to Latino migrant workers to show them they can grow produce from their home countries in the United States.

“Latino farm workers can contribute a lot to the very diverse culinary market that we have here in America,” Jerry says.

On the web: http://newillinoisfarmers.org/