28 September 2001


To get the most out of a small parcel of land you must find a niche, and that is exactly

what Michael and Joy Michaud have done. Tessa Gates went to Dorset to find out more

Michael, an American, and Joy Michaud met at a conference in Kentucky, had a transatlantic romance and then worked together on the Virgin Isles in the Caribbean. Little wonder then that when they settled in Britain in the little Dorset village of West Bexington where Joys family farm, they grew something exotic rather than conventional crops on their land.

Both Joy and Michael have a PhD in agriculture and their talents span soil science and land-based enterprises, writing and photography and Michael is currently researching ethnic allotments in the UK. On the land behind their house they grow a huge variety of different vegetables but in the poly tunnels chilli peppers rule. Red and green Jalapenos, Hungarian Hot Wax, which starts out yellow and ripens through orange to deep red, decorative Prairie Fire, pretty New Mix Twilight, the hot, hot Habanero (Scotch Bonnets) and tiny Thai Hot are just some of varieties the couple grow.

"Peppers are proving profitable and enjoyable," says Joy. "We started Peppers by Post very small five years ago and each year we have grown. A friend who sells dried chillies in London suggested we should try providing interesting fresh chillies. We have eight types in our catalogue but grow 45 to 50 varieties and people often send seeds for us to try.

&#42 Easy to grow

"We find them easy to grow although starting the plants is a lot of hard work," says Joy, who buys in the main varieties as plants to grow on. "They need a great deal of heat, slugs are a constant battle and we have almost lost crops to aphids." Natural predator control – a wasp that lays its eggs in aphids – is used to protect the crop against aphids now.

The plants are trained up strings and left unpruned. "We dont prune anything – big commercial growers would. We would not get the return on labour," explains Joy.

Picking starts at the end of July and the plants will crop until December. The chillies, which are picked and despatched the same day, are sold both wholesale and retail and despatched by courier for next-day delivery or by first class post.

&#42 Other crops

Other niche crops are grown too, such as tomatillos – round and green with a papery husk, they are a close relation to the Chines Lantern and the Cape gooseberry. In one of the outdoor plots Michael is trialling an Indian garden with plants which include landcress, purslain, rocket and fenugreek. "Five per cent of the population are ethnic groups and providing what they want – for example Asians use a lot of dill – is great for the small grower," says Michael, who supplies pumpkin tips (tender shoots) to an ethnic restaurant. "You have to find out what the market wants, then promote it. You have to get cookery writers on board."

Michael has written a cookery book himself – Cool Greens and Red Hot Peppers – and Joy photographs the vegetables they grow and supplies publications with the pictures through her photographic library.

The couple, who have two children, make the most of everything they do. Their chillies have even got them on TV – Michael will be in the new series of River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall this autumn. No doubt a good peppering of chillies will fill the screen, too.

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