Nestled in a holler in the Hominy Valley, a few miles outside of the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, is a small family farm. Though it is surrounded by many similar plots, this farm is one of the most unique in the area. This is the home of Smoking J’s Fiery Foods and Farm. Owned by Joel and Tara Mowrey, who live on the property with their two daughters, the farm is set apart from its Western North Carolina neighbors by many things, but one most of all: the crops grown here. Smoking J’s is not only a farm, where some of the hottest and rarest chili peppers in the world are cultivated, but also a small company that uses those peppers to make hot sauces, salsas and more. The story of Smoking J’s is not unlike those of other similar companies. It is, however, one that could not be recounted if it were it not for the extensive local network of resources, outlets and community support for local food and products, among other factors. This article, then, will serve to expound on just how these things were brought together in a comprehensive farm-and-business plan to create what is now Smoking J’s Fiery Foods and Farm.
I should share with the reader here that I spent the last two growing seasons working for Smoking J’s in every facet from planting to labeling the bottles. My job description would be hard to describe succinctly due to the varied nature of the work involved. This is part of what makes Smoking J’s so special. The peppers that are contained in a bottle of say, the Smoky Mango Habanero sauce, were first seeded by one or two people in the small hand-built greenhouse on the back lot of the property. They were brought from that early stage all the way to the finished product by relatively few hands. Very few hot sauce companies out there can make that claim, but more on that later.
The Mowreys purchased their farm in 2003 to start a rare tree and shrub business that marketed its products to the wholesale nursery industry. Over the next five years, this company was built up year by year, and it is still a part of the daily operations on the farm. All the while, however, the Mowreys cultivated a large garden for their own consumption. Joel has always had a passion for spicy foods, and so it followed to grow peppers in the garden plots. Season after season, more pepper varieties were added to the rows until they eventually had some 20 varieties in the mix. Somewhere along the way, Joel decided to make his own hot sauce, which he then shared with his family and friends. This proved to be the crucial moment in the formation of what would become Smoking J’s. When asked what pushed them in the direction of a commercial enterprise, Joel said: “After receiving a lot of positive feedback the wheels started turning and being an entrepreneur at heart I started wondering if there could be a business opportunity in producing hot sauces”. In 2008, with a business name thrown out by a friend who loved our Smoked Habanero Hot Sauce, Smoking J’s Fiery Foods was formed. So, as you can see, our Fiery Foods business, unlike the nursery business, began more as a hobby versus a grand business vision with firm ideas and well thought out plan. I have learned over the years and it’s my belief that to be a successful first generation farmer in today’s world your have to be willing to try new things and be willing to diversify in order to find a niche and somehow differentiate yourself and your farm from so many others looking to pursue and a similar way of life.” The niche that Smoking J’s fills is one that is relatively unknown in the Western North Carolina area and is a big part of what makes them unique.
As I said above, Smoking J’s is composed of two parts: the farm and the company. The Mowrey’s farm is comprised of 10 acres, nearly all of it arable bottomland hewn out by the millennial meanderings of the adjacent river. Though the soil is mostly Carolina red clay, one can quickly see the striated bands of crushed river rock when the fields have been turned. The peppers are grown on your average raised bed covered in black plastic mulch (this greatly aids in creating a warm soil base, which the peppers love) and irrigated with drip tape which is fed by the property’s well. Aside from the use of the tractor in the spring months for tillage, there is nearly no mechanization in the production of the crops here. Most work, including planting, stringing and harvesting, is done by hand. The workforce includes one or two full-time employees with some supplemental labor in the harvest periods. Peppers are the star crop to be sure, but there are cut flower fields, blueberry plots and a lath/greenhouse filled with ornamental nursery species as well. Additional crops are grown for local restaurants, florists, and nurseries. Smoking J’s Fiery Foods, the hot sauce company, is administered and marketed solely by Joel and Tara. As for the production of the sauces themselves, that work is done by many of the same folks that work in the fields.
It takes a lot of work and time to get from the fields to the kitchen though. It all starts early in the calendar year when the seeds are planted in the greenhouse and later potted. In the spring, the beds are prepped and the seedlings are planted. Over the course of the early summer, the plants and beds are tended until ready for harvest. Harvests are bunched together as much as possible which leads to massive loads (often in the 30-bushel range), making it easier to ship wholesale orders and process fruit while still fresh. The peppers that are used for the production of Smoking J’s foodstuffs are graded and de-stemmed at the farm and then taken to cold storage. In the kitchen, the peppers are either dried for rubs, pureed into mash for wholesale or used in the company’s sauces and salsas. Once these products are finished, they are bottled hot and labeled by hand upon cooling. From there, they are sold in the various retail outlets partnering with Smoking J’s.
In the last season, Smoking J’s farm grew around 20 different varieties of hot and sweet peppers, most of them hot and nearly all of them rare. Among their number were some familiar names like jalapeno and serrano, multiple varietals of the same type (there were 6 different types of habanero alone), and, of course, the hottest peppers out there, including the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T 6, which is the hottest pepper in the world weighing in at 1,463,700 Scoville heat units (an average jalapeno has a heat index of about 3,000 SHU). These peppers make Smoking J’s crops that much more marketable for wholesale which in turn allows the business room for experimentation and product expansion at a rate that would not be achievable otherwise. Smoking J’s is in a rare echelon of hot sauce producers because it grows all the peppers that it uses in its sauces, a practice which is relatively unknown in the industry. Add to that the fact that the Smoking J’s products are distinguished in a market flooded with choices due to the uncommon nature of their ingredients. At a glance, one may think that this is what most makes Smoking J’s unique. While this is true, it is only in part. As we will see, it is really the location of the farm and the company that truly sets it apart.
Asheville, NC is a small city in a third of the state that has a smaller population in 23 counties than the Raliegh-Durham-Chapel Hill area alone. That fact may lead some to think of this as a substandard market for a value added product such as hot sauce. Here in the heart of Appalachia though, the spirit of community and supporting your neighbor is alive and well. The recent national trend towards local and sustainable agriculture has only served to bolster this sense of community. Asheville is a very progressive town with a strong commitment to its farmers and entrepreneurs. Nearly every grocery outlet and many local restaurants sell or serve food and other items produced locally, and a large number of those are made organically or sustainably. This is something that allows small companies and farms like Smoking J’s to make a name for themselves. “Without the support of these people and businesses, it’s difficult to predict where our business would be,” Joel mused when asked about the local market.
There are several local organizations and non-profits that help make this community of support possible as well. The Appalachian Sustainable Food Project helps promote, among other endeavors, local sustainably grown food and crops in the Western North Carolina area. Their yearly catalog of member farms creates for consumers a simple and highly accessible guide detailing what local farmers have on offer and where it can be purchased. This publication creates invaluable exposure for Smoking J’s and so many others free of charge. ASAP, along with the Mountain Tailgate Market Association, coordinate and promote twenty local tailgate farmers’ markets. Just down the road from the Mowrey’s farm on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College is a small shared-use kitchen and small business incubator called Blue Ridge Food Ventures. This is the kitchen where Smoking J’s processes and packages all of its products. There are commercial grade steam kettles, convection ovens, dehydrators, bottlers and more available to use. This facility is utilized by nearly 30 small, local businesses, most of whom would not exist were it not for the service provided by BRFV. As Joel put it, “If we did not have access to this facility we would not have been able to even launch the value added part of our business due to the incredible expense of commercial equipment.” As far as retail outlets are concerned, Smoking J’s suffers no lack of options. As I mentioned previously, many grocery stores and restaurants offer local products and Smoking J’s has capitalized on this opportunity. Four different grocers sell Smoking J’s products and when in season, produce from Smoking J’s farm can be eaten at six different local restaurants. The Mowreys are also vendors in two of the Tailgate Farmers’ markets referenced above. Not only is this another opportunity to promote and sell fresh and value added product but provides them with an opportunity to get contact with the consumers. They are also active in promoting their product in various events like the Weekend of Fire, a partnership with a local restaurant that highlights the company’s sauces, as well as festivals in the immediate area and beyond. In the future, Smoking J’s hopes to expand this facet of the business by creating partnerships with more local restaurants, breweries and businesses.
Wholesale of fresh and dried fruit as well as pureed concentrates are a large part of the business, as it provides a steady and reliable source of income that can be garnered twelve months of the year. Joel stated that “[m]ost farms operate seasonally depending on what crops there is a market for also depending on what region the farm is located in. Our business is unique in that although we are not actively producing fresh peppers year-round we are selling peppers and pepper related products all year.” Direct marketing to the consumer through the internet is another way that the business can earn additional income. Often, Smoking J’s products are sold only to people in the local area and as such the name gets little recognition outside of Western NC. By selling on the website and offering shipping to anywhere in the US, Smoking J’s increases their publicity in other markets where it most likely would never have any impact.
So, as you can see, it is through a synthesis of many parts that the whole that is Smoking J’s emerges. Though it is impossible to say where or even what Smoking J’s would be without the resources and support at its disposal, it is likely that it would not enjoy the success that it has thus far. The specialization in rare varieties of an already uncommon crop allows for greater marketability in the wholesale market. The value added product aspect is the main method through which the company reaches its customer base and represents the most public face of the company’s future. Smoking J’s certainly could not have reached the point it’s at today, though, without the availability of Blue Ridge Food Ventures’ kitchen space or the publicity it has gained from partnerships with local non-profits and businesses alike. Asheville and the Western NC area’s appetite for all things local has made the daunting task of marketing a far more manageable task for the fledgling company. It is not to say that these factors do all the work for the Mowrey’s, but instead helps them realize a passion that might otherwise have foundered. What results is a hobby-cum-company that has the emotional investment of its owners and the commercial support of a customer base with a conscience.
Submitted by Dan Hughes
About the author:
Dan Hughes was raised in the farm country outside of Greensboro in the North Carolina Piedmont. The son of an avid gardener, he has always had an interest in growing food. His first real exposure to agriculture on a large scale was on the Farm at Warren Wilson College where he worked for two years while studying Political Science and History. It was there that he learned the value of a hard days work in the outdoors and the joys of seeing the fruits of your labor so readily presented. He has since worked on several different farms around the Asheville, NC area where he currently lives. Always an environmentalist at heart, it was through sustainable agriculture that he found a way to affect change for a better future with his own hands. Recognizing the growing need for ecologically minded folks on the policy and consulting end of farming, Dan hopes to study sustainable agricultural development in the coming year. He is fully committed to the mission of AGC and relishes the opportunity to put his knowledge on agriculture to good use with the organization.