- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

ROUND HILL, Va. The hottest land in all Virginia, to taste buds anyway, is the 2-acre plot farmed by Robert Farr.
A former tech executive, Mr. Farr has transformed himself into the Chile Man. Last year, his small organic farm produced about 800,000 hot chili peppers, which he turned into 17 varieties of hot sauce and salsa under the Chile Man label. Mr. Farr says he uses the Spanish spelling of "chili" to convey an international spirit and Chili Man already was taken.
He expects business to double this year, growing up to 2 million peppers and selling 40,000 bottles of hot sauce at $5.50 a pop.
He is one of a growing number of small farmers in the Mid-Atlantic region who have discovered how much they can increase their profits by processing and marketing their own products.
Mr. Farr estimated that his revenues would be one-fifteenth of what they were if he merely sold his habaneros and jalapenos on the wholesale market.
"There's no way conventional farmers can make a living doing produce," he said. "You have to have a value-added product."
In Mr. Farr's case, it's turning peppers into gourmet hot sauce. In Beverly Morton's case, it's a five-course dinner served at her farm and made almost exclusively with ingredients she has grown herself.
Her Dinner in the Garden allows her to draw customers to her Lovettsville farm to buy the jams, jellies and herbs she produces, rather than hitting the farmers' market circuit. It also allows her to capitalize on her farm's stunning view of the Potomac River.
"It was just easier for me to promote the farm, rather than going to all the farmers' markets," she said. "It's very serene here. It's an incredible piece of property."
She is expanding her operation this year to serve 50 diners each weekend night, beginning in late April and continuing through the fall. Last year, she had seats for 30 customers every other weekend night, and she was fully booked for the year by July.
The Mid-Atlantic region is an excellent area for small farmers to market their own goods, said Bruce Mertz, director of Future Harvest, a nonprofit network of farmers that helps them learn to retail their products.
"The consumer demand here is so strong because of the population base," Mr. Mertz said. "These small farms are out in the country a bit, but people are willing to make a short drive."
Both Mr. Farr and Miss Morton's farms are in Loudoun County, the nation's third-wealthiest county and one of its fastest-growing.
Many of Loudoun's farms had been replaced by housing developments, but Mr. Farr said he thought fewer farmers would sell out if they had any hope of making their land profitable. He said there is money to be made if farmers become creative marketers.
"If I can do it, anybody can do it," he said.
Mr. Farr worked as a marketing executive for software developer Oracle and a government contractor called GTSI until he bought his farm in 1998.
"I just got tired of the whole corporate grind," Mr. Farr said.
An avid cook, he always had grown peppers and made sauces for his own use, and his friends told him he ought to go into business. So he did.
In the macho world of hot pepper sauces, Mr. Farr carved a different niche, emphasizing flavor rather than heat. Some sauces are laced with cinnamon, honey and elderberries.
He grows 80 different peppers. Some, like the Anaheim, are mild, with a heat rating of 1,500 Scoville units. The hottest peppers are the Red Savina habanero, at about 350,000 Scoville units. Scoville units are the international gauge of food spiciness, with the number reflecting how many parts water are needed to fully dilute the hot taste.
He initially avoided the common jalapeno pepper, with a rating of about 5,000 Scoville units, but plans to grow it this year and use it in some sauces in response to customer demand.
Mr. Farr also has introduced his hottest sauce, the Thunderbolt, in response to customers who approach him at trade shows and ask, "What's the hottest thing you've got?"
"It's always one of these guys who is baring his chest or exhibiting some other type of macho behavior," Mr. Farr said. "People want to prove they can take the hottest food imaginable."
For Mr. Farr, the production of hot sauces is a perfect fit. The pepper plants can be picked two to three times a week, allowing a heavy yield on a small plot of land. Also, the sauces are classified as an acidified food, which reduces the amount of government regulation and paperwork because it's impossible for the botulinus food toxin to thrive in an acidified product.
But Mr. Farr said any number of niche markets are available to all types of farmers willing to take a creative approach.
"I've been successful enough to hold myself up to conventional growers as a case study," said Mr. Farr, who recently spoke to farmers about his experiences at a conference organized by Future Harvest.
"And the conventional farmers are starting to become receptive. He's realizing he doesn't have to sell his land."

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