Spoiler alert: Wisconsin winters aren’t ideal for growing hot peppers, as these plants typically come from places like Brazil and Mexico. But a local man brings the warmth, literally, to a circle house in Bay View.
Building on a dozen years of life in Brazil, Michael Arms created PepperRich Farm in December 2019, specializing in rarely seen organic peppers including the scorpion pepper, one of the hottest peppers in the world. The produce from his hoop house, along South Sixth Street, is sold to chefs and at farmers’ markets, and his specialty is hot sauces.
Growing up in a semi-rural part of Knoxville, Tennessee, Arms loved being a collector. “As a child, I had a collection of comics, then a collection of ceramic dogs and stones and shells,” he recalls. Decades later, Arms still enjoys amassing collections,
“I have a creepy collection of life-size ceramic cats…if you put them somewhere they startle people,” he adds with a laugh.
Arms credits his collector’s mentality, combined with an early exposure to gardening, for his current obsession with culture. “My family had a small farm and always grew tomatoes, so I grew up with a bit of that,” Arms says.
After a stint at the Atlanta College of Art, Arms worked in special effects in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, and he took up organic gardening.
“In California, I turned my whole yard into a garden,” Arms says. “They (California gardeners) were at the forefront of organic, maybe before other places.”
Arms traveled to Brazil to work on a stop-motion beer commercial and stayed there for 12 years before moving to Milwaukee.
“I moved here because of a friend and started working at C-Viche as a waiter, I also made ice cream and cheesecakes,” he recalls.
C-Viche’s immersion in the culinary culture sparked his passion for pepper.
“Having lived in Brazil and then been exposed to Peruvian cuisine and learned new ingredients at C-Viche, I was a nerd and thought, ‘why can’t you buy these peppers in stores?’ Oh look, I found some seeds, I’m going to grow my own,” Arms recalls.
“My weird curator obsession has become, ‘I have to find all the peppers…what if there’s a good one out there that I don’t know? In the end, I grew 45 or 50 kinds of peppers a year,” adds Arms.
Arms took advantage of his ties to the Milwaukee gardening community to find his current space, the former home of Growing Power, which closed in 2017.
“I dreamed about it,” Arms says. “I knew I wanted a greenhouse after that first year. My friend Erin Dentice is a teacher at Parkside; she does aquaponics and special education. I participated in a deal Erin made here and then she put me in touch with the owner.”
And the rest is the story of the Milwaukee chili in the making.
“It’s more a question of flavors”
The 12 years that Arms lived in Brazil introduced him to the tastes and flavors of the region,
“When I was in Brazil, I wasn’t a fan of peppers, but I knew some of them, which made it easier for me to come back and learn about all these types of peppers,” Arms says. “There’s a new culture of people who like hot sauce, but, in general, Brazilians don’t really like super spicy foods.”
PepperRich Farm has a scorpion pepper that will satisfy even the most heat-obsessed, but Arms swears the hottest isn’t necessarily the best.
“With my peppers, it’s more about flavor than spiciness,” he adds.
PepperRich Farm products cover a wide spectrum of heat ranging from sweet and fragrant peppers: cheiro de acemira, to a medium level of heat: aja angelo, to the strongest: scorpion pepper.
“Even with the scorpion pepper, for that split second, before it really treats you badly, like it’s very floral and fruity,” Arms warns.
keep the heat
In the winter of 2021, Arms took on his biggest challenge, keeping the heat in the hoop. Keeping the roots alive requires a temperature of around 40 degrees, he said.
“Last year the lows fell to minus 14 and it was near zero during the day for consecutive days,” Arms recalled. “I would go there in the middle of the night and use propane to warm it up a bit. I should go back later and make sure it wasn’t too cold anymore.
Arms created a more efficient system last winter,
“The tent inside the tent gives me an extra buffer. and there are a few electric heaters. I heat a 55 gallon barrel of water with an aquarium heater and connect it to a submersible pump on a timer. Ten times a night for 15 minutes, it pumps hot water through pipes along the base of the plants,” says Arms. “If you accumulate enough heat in the ground, you will survive better.”
Sometimes the summer heat can also be a problem, causing the flowers to drop. Last year, Arms installed an exhaust fan connected to a heat sensor, he said.
Pepper Rich Farm is completely organic and uses compost from a nearby hoop house, Kompost Kids, as well as Blue Ribbon Organic compost.
Arms and its neighboring Hoop Houses also use an important sustainable cultivation practice,
“We have a cistern and we pump water from the parking lot,” he says.
Find a home for his peppers
This season, Arms is growing 25 manageable varieties, with the possibility of adding a few more as the season progresses.
Having a hoop-shaped house allows the plants to grow year-round and allows them to be perennials, lasting 15 to 20 years, he said. The harvest takes place several times a year,
PepperRich Farm sells peppers to local chefs, but to use and store more peppers, Arms started making hot sauce.
“These peppers are extremely rare and you won’t find them anywhere else. The flavor just doesn’t compare, but they are very expensive. It’s more added value when I turn them into sauces,” says Arms.
It sells more than a dozen types of hot sauce, each with information about the origins of the peppers and their classification in Scoville heat units.
With the support of friends in Milwaukee’s food community, the Pepper Rich Farms hot sauce business is up and running.
“Nathan Heck is a Braise alumnus and he now has Hot Dish Pantry at 3rd Street Market. It’s one of the places you can try my hot sauces,” says Arms. “Strega chefs/owners Katie Gabert and Sam Sandrin have used PepperRich Farm peppers in some of their pasta dishes.”
After losing in-person sales during the COVID pandemic, Arms plans to sell hot sauce at local farmers’ markets this season; sauces are also sold at Lion’s Tooth Bookstore/Café in Bayview and at pepperrichfarm.com.
As Arms continues to build PepperRich Farm, his ultimate dream is to share his passion for pepper through a bigger platform,
“I have an idea for a show, Pepper Hunter, where I go to little markets in South America for peppers, and then I go into people’s backyards and see what they’re growing,” says Arms.
Joan Elovitz Kazan is a Milwaukee-based freelancer who writes frequently about food and other topics. While Kazan would rather write about food than cook it, her husband, three kids and dog would say she’s also a good cook.
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