The humble bell pepper is one of the most widely grown vegetable crops in the world. American growers produce more than 1.5 billion pounds of peppers annually. Despite that impressive number, though, they are an expensive crop to grow.

Steve West of Research Designed for Agriculture (RD4AG) presented “Bell Peppers: Ideas on How to Get the Most Out of an Expensive Crop” at the most recent Great Lakes Expo. He noted that around 40,000 acres of bell peppers are grown in the U.S. annually. The gross income for peppers in California, the highest producing state, is about $35,000/acre – but the range of cost to get them to harvest is $35,000/acre to $50,000/acre.

“You want to harvest everything you grow,” West said. That way the math works out.

In his research, West found four main ways to help ensure those who do grow bell peppers make a profit:

  1. Plant them right. “Peppers are like computers – garbage in, garbage out,” West said. A good pepper harvest begins with a good pepper seedling. Growers need to make sure they water and fertilize correctly. When it comes to transplanting, if a plug is a little tight, shake it a little to loosen it, don’t just rip it out. Every plant is precious.

“Peppers innately want to die,” West said (only half-joking). “We need to fight that. They need lots of water and don’t forage well for water themselves,” so proper irrigation is crucial.

However, if the soil around the plants is really wet, a soil fungicide program needs to be aggressive. West said you want good nitrogen levels at planting and most of your phosphorus and potassium up front, then pull the nitrogen back as the plants come into bloom. Then add lots more nitrogen when the fruit is mostly set.

  1. Observe the harvest. Whether you’re harvesting yourself or using laborers, this is an important to step to see what might have gone wrong.

“Watch what goes into the cull bin and find the reasons why,” West instructed. “Walk the field after harvest to see what was left.”

Things growers should be mindful of include blossom end rot, improper irrigation, calcium placement and heat/cold issues. “If there’s sun burn, maybe you didn’t have enough canopy cover,” he said. “If it’s misshapen or scarred, was the plant big enough for the load? If it’s undersized but mature, look at your plant health program. You’re not gonna get a big yield off a wimpy plant.”

He added that while chefs love the choice size of peppers for chopping, they don’t usually cover the cost of harvest, let alone growing. “Size is everything in peppers – everyone wants those jumbos,” he said.

  1. Think forward. Consider what your challenges will be in five or 10 years, and not just at planting or at harvest. West noted, for example, that labor is an evergreen issue.

“Are you looking at varieties all the time to see if you can get more per cut or cut earlier?” he posed. “Can you figure out how to machine harvest? What new technology can be used in the future?”

  1. Be an early adopter. This tip ties directly to the one about thinking forward. “The money spent in peppers is big,” West said. “Waiting for something to be proven down the road is not a strategy for survival.”

He suggested trying “some outlandish things” on a small scale to discover what works best for you. He also said to encourage your consultants, local Cooperative Extension, packers, etc. to work on ways to get the unit cost to where money can be made by everyone.

“Peppers are not a game for the faint of heart,” West said. “You gotta be willing to spend money to make money.”

by Courtney Llewellyn