Sold before it’s grown at Philly Chile Co.

After plants get their first true leaves, they’re transplanted into containers.

Well, that was the plan.

While they no longer specialize in chili peppers, that’s how it started, stopped and then progressed at Philly Chile Co. Farm in Monroeville, N.J. From mid-February into July, their greenhouse-only operation now features a variety of certified organic vegetables and herbs. Strictly contract growers for the last decade, they grow 800 flats of plants a year, half of which fill a retail order and half fill a farm’s needs. Every plant is contracted before it’s grown and follows a strict delivery schedule. “Before we grow it, it’s sold,” Ferber says.

The Philly Chile Co. began in 1993 after a trip the couple took to Hatch, N.M., to visit June Lytle, “The Chile Queen,” Ferber says. “Out West when you order chili, there are no beans,” he says. “There’s roasted chili peppers. It’s more like a stew of chili peppers.”

From Lytle’s vault – literally a safe – they bought pure seed, snatching up two of her most famous chili peppers: Sandia and Big Jim, a hybrid she developed and named for her husband. They bought a pound of each.

Back home, they rented an acre of ground at Linvilla Orchards in Media, Pa., where Ferber has worked as a manager for nearly 20 years, to plant that seed, grow chili peppers and sell to prominent Philadelphia restaurants. It turned out that the restaurants didn’t need, or want, that many chili peppers. Plus, Ferber says they “got parking tickets that added up to more money than they were selling chili peppers for.” And the chili peppers didn’t grow very well in eastern soil.

Ferber had traveled to Chile as part of the New Jersey Agricultural Leadership Development Program in 1999 before graduating. As part of the two – year program, he took courses in agribusiness, professional and government associations, and sales and marketing, while learning to be articulate and interested in serving on industry boards and associations.

After the first season with only chili peppers, the couple started growing other crops for another season at Linvilla, a 300-acre family farm, before they bought their own 7-acre farm in 1995, Philly Chile Co. Farm, which is run on a 9,000-kilowatt solar source that was installed in 2004. They developed long-term relationships with restaurateurs. Ferber’s family had been in the restaurant business and McCutcheon is a chef, so they weren’t in uncharted waters.

They had a retail greenhouse for a few years, but Ferber says it tested their privacy. Located at the home farm, customers stopped any time of day, then talked and talked some more. “And you have to get back to work,” he says.

The couple also ran a 50-share CSA for four seasons on their own farm and as a drop site in South Philadelphia that was always at a member’s home in exchange for a reduced rate.

Along the way, they were certified organic.

“At the start, we didn’t know a lot, and we didn’t do any market studies,” Ferber says. “We just wanted to grow stuff and sell it.”

Rob Ferber and his wife, Amanda McCutcheon, of the Philly Chile Co.

A turning point

On Aug. 16, 2002, when the landmark octagonal barn at Linvilla burned to the ground, Ferber, who had gone part-time, returned to full-time in the rebuild, an offer he couldn’t refuse since managing both was killing him, and since the growing operation, though successful, wasn’t profitable enough to pay the bills. A replacement barn was designed, built and opened Sept. 28, 2002.

“After the day of the fire, we all went to work the next day,” Ferber recalls. “The crew picked in the fields. We set up a tent and sold what we had. We may have lost all our records, our offices and our inventory, but the neighborhood support was so incredible that it encouraged us to keep going. From that day, and since, it inspired all of us to figure out a way to make it work.”

The innovative germination chamber, a salvaged, galvanized metal bakery box, where tomatoes get baked at 85 degrees for 48 hours and peppers at 85 degrees for 72 hours.

Back home, though, McCutcheon took over the brunt of the Philly Chile Co. work. With a plant business only, “it helped that we weren’t going all year,” Ferber says. “When our market plants went to their intended markets, our dabbling ended.”

Philly Chile is an exclusive supplier to Linvilla Orchards. “It’s a little incestuous,” Ferber admits, “but they wanted it. I give them exclusive representation.”

Now, for Philly Chile Co., it’s back at a crossroads. They’ve considered expansion of the plant business. “I feel we have a great product, and there’s a demand and great interest in our plants,” Ferber says. “We’ll raise anything anybody wants, but the question is time and space.”

Adding a second greenhouse is still a discussion point. The current greenhouse is 22 by 48 feet and has a propane heater, germination mats, a woodstove and a poly cover. Galvanized grates salvaged from Philadelphia school windows serve as tabletops.

McCutcheon is already a full-time grower, and her mom, Elizabeth, helps with the day-to-day seeding and transplanting. Ferber continues to handle the logistics, supplies, sales, descriptions and paperwork.

Inside the greenhouse

Philly Chile Co. first plants in Sunshine Organic Planting Mix, a peat-based soil with a small fertilization charge for seed starting.

From there, there’s an innovative germination chamber, a salvaged, galvanized metal bakery box, two-wide, 6.5 feet high by 5 feet wide. Tomatoes get baked at 85 degrees for 48 hours and peppers at 85 degrees for 72 hours. “It’s not picturesque, but it works,” Ferber says. “It helps us get jump-started. It provides an optimal growing environment – moist and in the dark. As soon as we put them in the greenhouse, they pop. Heating mats take up too much space. With this unit, we can fit 50 to 60 flats in at a time.”

After plants get their first true leaves, they’re transplanted into one of three containers: Jumbo 606 36-cell, six-packs for retail; 1801-18 3-inch pots; or 50-cell trays for sales to farmers. Everything is hand-watered. There’s no irrigation system.

Upon transplant, Philly Chile uses McEnroe organic compost from upstate New York. It’s a unique mix. “Most continue in peat-based soil,” Ferber says, “but once they germinate and go on into plant flats, it provides enough nutrients until clients put their plants into the ground. He’s trialed other soil mixes, including local product, but says nothing compares.

Organic seed sources vary, but among their favorite suppliers are Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

“We only buy what we need for the season,” says Ferber, who also plants their own .25-acre garden with potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, blackberries and raspberries.

He makes his calculations based on the number of plants ordered, and then multiplies by 20 percent to cover overages. Because of the vast variety, Ferber can’t order in bulk, but rather in quarter-ounce measures, sometimes even single seed packs. “We source so many catalogs, and we can usually find what we need there, or especially with the Internet,” he says. “We’ve always had a huge variety.”

Hot peppers include Bulgarian Carrot, Cherry Bomb, habanero, Ho Chi Minh, Hungarian wax, Indian Jwala, Joe E. Parker (Numex), jalapeno, long hot peppers, Red Rocket, cayenne, serrano, Thai and Tunisian Baklouti. There are seven types of regular peppers, 20-plus tomato varieties, eight cherry tomatoes and plum tomatoes that include Amish Paste, Bellstar, Roma and San Marzano Gigante 3, a 2.5-by-7-inch version with a magnificent, robust flavor.

Philly Chile grows eight different eggplants, plus miscellaneous plants including lettuce mix varieties, Flashy Trout Back romaine, Sylvesta butterhead, Blushed Butter cos, Olga romaine, Jericho, Belstar broccoli, broccoli raab, Farao green cabbage, Red Express cabbage, Napa Chinese cabbage, Champion collards, Prize bok choy, Eros escarole, Tango celery, Rossa di Milano onion, Dakota Tears onion and Verde Puebla tomatillo.

Its cucurbits include Sugar Baby, Crimson Sweet, watermelon, Maverick cantaloupe, Swan Lake honeydew, Dark Green zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, Gold squash, Marketmore cucumbers, Straight 8 cucumbers and Athena cantaloupe.

A much-appreciated service

At Linvilla Orchards, Farm Manager Norm Schultz is in charge of planting, which is done every two weeks beginning on April 1. The biggest orders arrive May 15 and 30, and then are on a downswing from there. Everything goes in on time, thanks to the Philly Chile Co. Previously, Schultz struggled to get the variety he wanted when he wanted it.

“Most [growers] want thousands of plants, but Linvilla prefers variety and heirlooms,” he says. “With Rob, we can place a small order of what we want. The big guys want to see the big orders.”

Then, there’s the added transport expense Linvilla saves. Ferber delivers to Linvilla when he arrives for work. All his plants are staked with a plastic spiked orange marker. “Working with Rob is ideal,” Schultz says.

Linvilla has sold plants for 75 years, but plant sales have continued to grow. There’s a demand for bedding plants, and they help Linvilla expand into the plant market “in a big way,” Schultz says, to help pay the new mortgage. Linvilla’s strongest seasons have always been the fall, but now Philly Chile is helping the farm to thrive in the spring and early summer.

Linvilla’s vegetable farm operation is 4 acres. Ferber supplies 400 to 500 flats of vegetables and herbs a year. All are 50-plant flats, so Schultz is generally planting 25,000 vegetable plants a year. The farm plantings supply the farm market store, and he’s still planting for the final time July 1, when most others have already stopped.

“The fall is big for us,” Schultz says. “I want to be picking through November. Others may close down by then, but our sales are still growing.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.