VERONA — Ted and Joan Ballweg have traveled the world, sampling foods and searching for the perfect varieties of chili peppers to bring back to what Ted calls his “Pepper Ponderosa,” a 5-acre plot of organic fields, raised beds and greenhouses that house more than 30 varieties of chili peppers.
From Peru and India to Japan and Africa, it’s important to the Ballwegs to source the seeds themselves, selecting varieties that most haven’t heard of or that aren’t typically grown in Wisconsin.
“We’ve converted a lot of people,” Ted Ballweg said. “Spicy doesn’t have to be burn your mouth.”
Ballweg grew up on a small dairy farm in the Sauk Prairie area where his parents also grew organic fruits and vegetables; he was often tasked with manning a farm stand on Highway 12 to sell his family’s produce — a type of sales that predated the rise of farmers’ markets.
Years after his family sold their dairy herd, Ballweg took over the orchard on the farm, and a while after that, he decided it was time to grow something he had an interest in: chili peppers. He started by growing jalapeños, a variety that grows best in Wisconsin; however, it wasn’t long before there were more varieties planted than just the humble jalapeño.
To Ballweg, chili peppers are universal and cultural; there are varieties special to every country and flavors and foods associated with them. And not all are “burn your mouth” hot.
“I was growing other stuff, but the peppers seemed to talk to me,” he said. “Now everything we do is related to using chili peppers for new flavors.”
The Ballwegs have made a lot of trips throughout the years to source their chili pepper seeds for their business Savory Accents, including their first trip to Jamaica in search of Scotch bonnet, a variety of chili pepper used in the Caribbean to flavor jerk pork and chicken. The couple returned to the U.S. with a bottle of jerk sauce, but soon found they just needed the pepper to really get their business off the ground.
A second trip to Peru yielded another special variety of chili pepper, a yellow pepper with a unique citrus flavor that also blends well with other flavors.
With Ted’s background in agriculture and Joan’s passion for food, the couple began experimenting with products that could be made with the chili peppers they were bringing back from all over the world. Their first product was a variation of a chili spice blend: a hot pepper seasoning that contained seven different peppers. Soon a second product was introduced, chili oil, great for sautéing and grilling.
“Over the years, the products have evolved from these two products,” Ballweg said.
The Ballwegs now sell almost three dozen processed products made from the chili peppers grown on their property, including hot sauces, seasonings and rubs, salad dressings, spicy honey and spicy beer bread mix. Many of their products can be ordered in a gift box, too, making them great gifts for people who love spicy flavors or just like to experiment with different tastes.
From a commercial kitchen on their property, the Ballwegs use various techniques to preserve the chili pepper flavors, including dehydration, fermentation, pickling and canning, so that even when the peppers aren’t producing in the colder months, they still have products and a market for them.
Ballweg credited UW-Extension and classes through the university for helping him learn more about commercial kitchens and food safety, the areas in which Ballweg said had the steepest learning curve.
Ballweg said his background in sales and marketing has also paid off in the business, allowing him to create interesting labeling and market his products effectively. It has also allowed him to create a strategy for his products, watching food trends closely to realize how diets were changing, people were being more experimental with food and how travel expedited an increased interest in food.
Along with selling online, the Ballwegs are also at the Dane County Farmers Market, along with the Green City Market in Chicago. Ballweg sees opportunity at markets as he can get the product into the hands of potential customers through sampling and create a personal connection, which he feels is important now more than ever as people are immersed in technology, social media and often work from their homes.
“Markets have been a boon to agriculture,” he said. “At our booth, we engage as many senses as we can. And the proof is in the tasting; the sampling.”
Ballweg also sells chili pepper plants at his booth, feeding another trend he has observed over the years: the rise of “patio gardening.” He sees potential for rural to connect with urban through this type of gardening, sharing knowledge and making a food connection.
Making that food connection is also why the Ballwegs host farm tours and dinners, inviting people to their property to see how they grow the peppers and show how even with just 5 acres, a person can be profitable if they have a good product.
“I have deep roots in agriculture and consider myself a fourth-generation farmer, just not what my grandparents were doing,” Ballweg said. “I’ve watched Wisconsin lose dairy farms, but what I’m excited about is how they’ve reinvented themselves and become something new.
“In a way, that’s kind of what I did.”