The Telegraph Herald’s monthly Homegrown feature highlights vendors who sell at tri-state area farmers markets.
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Location: Elizabeth, Ill.
Items offered: Fresh produce, including a variety of hot peppers; preserves and canned items
Products sold at: Galena (Ill.) Farmers Market
ELIZABETH, Ill. — Standing near his rural Elizabeth garden on a recent afternoon, Mitch Allen held up a palmful of hot peppers.
The rainbow of vegetables included a small wrinkled red pepper known as the Carolina reaper, which he described as the hottest pepper in the world. Alongside it were a peach Carolina reaper, ghost pepper, yellow seven pot pepper and chocolate seven pot pepper.
The last one, Allen noted, is named for its brown hue, not for its flavor.
“It tastes like pain,” he said.
Allen and his mother, Martha Whitmer, are in their second year of selling their products at the Galena Farmers Market. There, they are known as “The Pepper Guys” for the many types of peppers they offer, though they grow and sell a vast array of other produce, as well.
“It’s fun to interact with the people at the market,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of cool people down there. And the gardening is just a good getaway.”
A family operation
Whitmer and Allen first began gardening on the land, which is owned by Whitmer’s brother Randy, about 15 years ago.
“We started with just a few tomato plants, and every year, it seemed like we tilled up more ground,” Allen said.
Today, they have about 10,000 square feet of garden space filled with rows of produce: Not just their eponymous peppers, but also squash, onions, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce, zucchini, pumpkins and more.
“I’ve got my eye on this one pumpkin. He’s mine for carving this year,” Allen said, holding up the large, rotund orange squash.
He and Whitmer keep the plants hydrated with an irrigation system of hoses that can be turned on and off as needed depending on how much rain the area receives. They hope to rig up a hydroponic system in the greenhouse on the property, which would allow them to continue growing hot peppers, spinach and herbs throughout the winter.
“We usually spend at least two hours a night out here, weeding and picking and everything,” Whitmer said.
The mother-son duo also take pride in the uncommon produce they grow, including Japanese white eggplants and Thai green frog fingers eggplants, a small, green eggplant often used for sautéing.
“We try to add some quirky vegetables to the mix,” Allen said.
Heating things up
The heart of the operation, however, are their famous hot peppers, which Allen said he first began growing in jest.
“It was more so for a joke at first, just because I had seen other people eat them and react, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this,’” Allen said.
Through the years, he has planted more than 30 varieties of peppers, ranging from mild green peppers to the spiciest reapers. Not all of the vegetables thrived — growing habaneros always has been a struggle, though Whitmer and Allen aren’t sure why — but before they knew it, they were up to their knees in hot peppers.
Allen contacted Ivo Pudiak, founder of Galena Canning Co., and arranged to sell some of his hot peppers to the company. Pudiak died in March 2020, but Allen continues to work with the business’ new owners.
He also began dehydrating some of his hot peppers about three years ago, and he and Whitmer use the peppers and other produce to make preserves and canned goods, which they sell at Galena Farmers Market alongside the fresh produce.
“Canning has always been a big thing for us,” said Allen, noting that his grandmother canned. “It’s one of those lost arts that we’ve kind of embraced.”
Some of their popular offerings include dill pickles, giardiniera, pickled okra and asparagus, candied jalapeno peppers, banana pepper honey mustard and strawberry jalapeno pepper jelly.
“People definitely look forward to seeing us,” Allen said. “There’s an individual that eats the candied jalapenos with his coffee in the morning. He goes through two to three jars a week.”
Dustan Duggan, of Galena, said he and his family are frequent customers at Galena Farmers Market, where they typically make a stop at The Pepper Guys’ stand.
“We’ve (purchased) his beans and his peppers, and we’re kind of stuck on the spicy dill pickles,” Duggan said. “They’re fresh, crisp pickles, and they’ve got a good quality pepper or cucumber that he’s starting out with. Because they’re not mass-producing anything, you never get a jar where some are good and some aren’t as great — they’re always on the good side.”