Lee and Wayne James, a brother and sister team, operate an unusual 15-acre farm in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of San Francisco. While most of their farm is devoted to market garden vegetables and to a small vineyard, their true love lies in growing 20 varieties of chiles they sell fresh, 20 varieties of chiles they sell dry (or smoked), 15 varieties of fresh sweet peppers and chiles and in raising a small flock of Shetland sheep. Wayne started to farm soon after graduating from high school in Potter Valley and Lee joined him in 1980.
Chiles, Shetland Sheep and the
The James' most visible presence at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is their impressive display of fresh chile peppers and dried smoked chile peppers (chipotles). The stand is tended by Lee who sports a jaunty hand-made Shetland wool chapeau in the cooler months. During the summer months, there's a vibrant display of 15 different varieties of fresh red, yellow and green chili peppers. But Lee has something to offer year round and you can feel the chile pepper heat emanating from the stand at any time of year! They grow over 2 tons of peppers each year!!
In 1999, they bought what is affectionately known as "the pumpkin wagon". It's a 20 ft. flatbed trailer filled with pumpkins and winter squash that debuts in at Marin County Market in October, November and December.
The James offer a wide variety of whole dried chile peppers, chipotles and chile jam at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market and also by mail order:
|de Arbol||hot; for Mexican salsas|
|Casabel||round, complex flavor (like old Bordeaux wine!)|
|Chihuacle Negro||flavorful; purple color;
for black Oaxaca moles
|Guajillo||mild, rich Mexican flavor|
|Mulato||mild; dark, large thick pod|
|Papri-Mild||slightly spicy paprika flavor|
|Pasilla||mild green flavor; long, dark pod|
|Scotch Bonnet||hot and good|
|Sonoma Red||medium hot; like New Mexico|
|Eclipse||dark, chocolate flavor|
|Sunrise||yellow and fruity|
|Sunset||yellow and fruity|
In 1992, the James began smoking many varieties of their chile peppers to make "chipotles", an Aztec word meaning "chile" and "smoke". Starting with red ripe chiles, they smoke them in a backyard smoke oven for one week over a grape and fruit wood fire. The smoker was designed and built by Wayne. The process requires 24-hour tending to keep the fire going. Smoking begins when the chiles reach their full ripeness in August and continues until the last ones come off the plants in December.
Chipotles are used to make tangy, deep chocolate-brown sauces to spice up tacos, grilled chicken, grilled meats, veggies, etc. They come pre-packaged in bulk. Chipotle powder is also available. Recipes to use chipotles can be found in the Tierra catalog which you can pick up at the Market and in Jackie McMahan's book, Chipotle Cookbook.
|Santa Fe||Hot with a little sweetness|
|TAM Jalapeno||Medium, but intense flavor|
|New Mexico||Medium with rich smoky flavor|
|Wax Hungarian||Mild yet flavorful|
Dry chile mixes with names such as "East L.A. Salsa", "WILD! Mole", and "Mild Mole" are available as well as a chipotle powder mix to which you only need to add water, vinegar and onion to make an instant sauce!
Other Interesting Things
* A variety of Fresh Shelling Beans, August - October.
* 7 Verities of Chile Jam, mild to habanero; smoky as well.
* Red and yellow Chile Ristras assembled by Lee (year round - while they last -- they're very popular items).
* Assorted Vegetables, depending on what's in season (year round).
* Winter Squash and Pumpkins, on a flatbed trailer (from 1/2 lb. Sweet Dumplings to 50 lb. Blue Hubbards), October - December.
Tucked around the side of their stand, you'll usually find boxes of freshly sheared Shetland wool surrounded by an informative billboard outlining the history of Shetland sheep in the United States and featuring natural-colored Shetland yarn and hand-woven Shetland wool blankets and ponchos.
3 acres of the James' farm are devoted to 10 adult and 3 baby Shetland sheep. Sheep raising started out as a retirement hobby for Walt and Esther James, Lee and Wayne's parents. A poster describes how Shetland sheep are a primitive breed that were probably brought to the Shetland Islands by the Vikings 1,000 years ago and were first introduced to North America in 1980 when a group of 40 were imported into Canada. The James family acquired their first flock of 8 sheep in 1988 when Wayne and Walt drove them back from Vermont in 3 days in a small pick-up truck. These were the first Shetland sheep west of the Mississippi!
Shetland sheep are prized by hand spinners for their fine, soft wool. The James' sell their wool to spinners and weavers mostly in Oregon, where their parents now live. But the sheep also play an integral role in a self-sustaining agricultural cycle at the James' farm. Sheep manure is used as organic fertilizer for the vegetable and chile pepper gardens and the unused garden produce (all except for the chile peppers!) is fed back to the sheep in a continuous cycle.
Sheep within this small flock that display genetic defects, such as too tightly curled horns that can distort the sheep's face, are not allowed to breed and occasionally Lee will have a sheepskin for sale at the market.
For more information see http://www.tierravegetables.com
May 1996; updated September 2000.
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