Woods Hole resident John J. Fricke, known as "Rooster," has turned his back yard at 9 Nobska Road into a thriving micro-farm. The barely one-third acre of land in back of his house is packed with hundreds of pots growing 50 different varieties of chili peppers, from the super-hot Trinidad moruga scorpion to the sweet and mild tequila sunrise.
"They're just beautiful," Mr. Fricke said this past Wednesday as he harvested a basket of ripe chilies. The peppers show a gorgeous diversity of shape and color, some ripening to a deep purple almost black, others classic red but shaped like a mini pattypan squash. "Look at the variety of breeds of dogs," said Mr. Fricke, "Well, people have done the same with chilies."
Mr. Fricke, 59, said he has always been a grower and enjoyed spicy food, but his full obsession with chili peppers began about six years ago when his son, Jake, brought home a small vile of capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat. Father and son experimented eating the capsaicin, first on crackers and cheese. "Then we were eating it for sport," said Mr. Fricke, "You know, putting drops directly on our tongue."
Capsaicin stimulates the brain the same way a physical burn does, explained Mr. Fricke. The brain dumps feel-good chemicals called endorphins to deal with the perceived injury, and leads to a kind of relaxing chili-high. This particular bottle of capsaicin was derived from the bhut jolokia pepper, which originated in India. "The bhut jolokia is steeped in history and lore and it almost has a mystical power," said Mr. Fricke. "For me, [growing chilies] is a quest almost—why do they have so much power? Suppose I was growing carrots: it just wouldn't have the same cache."
"How can we make the world a wholesome and healthy environment?" asked Mr. Fricke
Mr. Fricke began growing chilies, including several varieties of the bhut jolokia and experimenting with salsas, jellies and smoking techniques. "People said, 'this is good, you should sell this,' and then began asking to buy plants," said Mr. Fricke. He went into business two years ago, and said that Nobska Farms is now "much more than a hobby that pays for itself."
"This is a farm, but it's also a research platform," said Mr. Fricke as he toured his back yard. In addition to his chili plants, the back yard hosts a smoker, greenhouse, family vegetable garden, chicken coop, and fish pond surrounded by a tall flower garden that attracts a huge number of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Taking the Global View
Mr. Fricke said his farm is an experiment in high intensity urban agriculture, concerned with the larger problem of how to feed the additional 2 to 3 billion people the United Nations predicts will be living on the planet by 2050. "How can we make the world a wholesome and healthy environment?" asked Mr. Fricke. "This is something I've got to do," he said.
Mr. Fricke said that although Nobksa Farms is not certified as an organic farm he uses strictly organic methods of cultivation. He showed off his greenhouse where he will be setting up an aquaponics project in which fish excrement will fertilize winter production of chili peppers. Chili plants are woody perennial shrubs, and given a warm climate, will produce year round. "It can be 90 degrees in here in the winter," said Mr. Fricke.
Mr. Fricke said he will experiment to see what air and water temperatures best serve the plants, as well as figure out the maximum growing density they tolerate. Mr. Fricke, who has scientific training and seemingly boundless energy, hopes to document and publish the results of his self-financed research. "The farm has a lot of parts," he said.
Mr. Fricke's regular chili customers include Quicks Hole restaurant in Woods Hole, and a mixologist in New York City specializing in super-hot drinks. Mr. Fricke recently mailed 60 Trinidad moruga scorpion chilies to a woman in Arkansas. That pepper registers 1,000 times more spicy than a jalapeno on the Scoville heat scale used to categorize chilies. "Those guys are bad, I mean bad," said Mr. Fricke.
Mr. Fricke loves meeting and exchanging with other chili enthusiasts. This past July an MBL summer scientist and chili enthusiast, Loretta Roberson, stopped by Nobska Farms with salsas she'd made from Mr. Fricke's chilies. The two of them sat around a table on the back porch sampling the salsas and discussing their various qualities as wine connoisseurs might conduct a tasting.
Dr. Roberson described her travels in Wahaca, Mexico, and the chilies and traditional foods she encountered in the markets there. She also talked about traveling in India, and how it was difficult, because she was a foreigner, to get restaurants to serve her food at its traditional spice level. "I literally had to beg them," Dr. Roberson said. She said that on her last day in India she asked her waiter to serve a dish at its customary spice level. He reluctantly agreed, and then the entire kitchen came out to watch her eat it. "It was hot," Dr. Roberson said, "But it was just how I like it."