Jim Roberts from Underwood Ranches
One of the special things I’ve noticed about most of the farmers I talk to is an underlying sense of pride they have about growing food for people. They never come right out and say it, of course, but it’s there, you can see it in their eyes when they’re looking out at their sprawling acres of crop land. Jim Roberts is no different. We met on the side of Route 23 on a dirt farm road in Fillmore by a young crop of Jalapeño peppers. He has that undeniable look of gentlemen farmer; pure and good. The first thing he told me is his day usually starts at 5:30. (I should have brought him coffee.) He has experienced the highs and lows involved in farming every step of the way for Underwood Ranches for the passed 25 years. That’s when he left Nevada with his wife, another plant enthusiast, who he met at Cal Poly in SLO.
Jim arrived to Underwood Ranches in 1987, which he described as the end of an era of farming in VC. Smaller growers were being bought up by bigger operations all over the country. He seemed very proud Underwood has remained autonomous. A significant factor in staying independent is in1988 Underwood Ranches began what has become a very fruitful relationship with Huy Fong Foods by obtaining a contract for jalapeno peppers on 40 acres. It was so much more than a contract – it was a friendship that developed based on honesty and trust. It all began with a letter from Craig Underwood to David Tran, the owner of Huy Fong. Over 25 years the original 40 acres has turned into 1750. Both farmer and processor agreed on the terms of the peppers – fresh as possible, undamaged, free of dirt and leaves, no stems, very spicy. Jim said, “To test spiciness you have to cut it open and lick it. It’s a great buzz. Even when you’ve been harvesting them all day and the Capsaicin compound gets on your skin it can give you buzz. It wakes you up.”
Jim knows everything about Jalapeno peppers, which includes the growing season from here to Kern County. 1st planting is April 1 and harvesting is August 1 in Kern, September 1 in LA and October 1 in Ventura County. Jim is very proud of their harvesting capabilities, which has made them a low cost producer, far less than Mexico.
When I asked Jim why he loves farming he immediately exclaimed, “The challenge. Peppers are prone to disease, pests love them, checking (lines and rough edges on skin) and sun burn.” Regardless he said, “He loves the outdoors and thrives on competition.” Spoken like a true farmer!
Underwood Ranches also grows: Specialty vegetables (baby beets and carrots) Brussel Sprouts, Chili Peppers, Artichokes, Fennel, Celery Root, Blueberries, Turnips and Rutabagas.
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