The gig: Craig Underwood, 72, is a fourth-generation farmer who grows all the chili peppers for Irwindale-based Huy Fong Foods, which makes the wildly popular Sriracha in the signature green-capped bottle. Underwood, a Navy veteran and graduate of Cornell University, farms land from Bakersfield to Camarillo.
Diverse operation: Underwood Ranches, his wholesale business, is based in Camarillo. His direct-sales business, Underwood Family Farms, is based in Moorpark and has been visited by schoolchildren on educational farm tours for years. Underwood also operates produce stands, appears at farmer's markets across Los Angeles and Ventura counties and maintains a Community Supported Agriculture program in which members receive a box weekly filled with seasonal fruit and vegetables grown on his farm. An annual Fall Harvest Festival in Moorpark raises about $100,000 for local organizations such as high schools, firefighters and Boy Scouts.
A dire decade: The 1980s were tough for growers like Underwood. California was experiencing overproduction in crops with the expansion of the state's water project. Underwood even had to cut back his successful baby vegetable business. Large producers made his mini carrots obsolete by carving regular-sized carrots into bite-sized snacks.
An important letter: Late in the 1980s, Underwood wrote a letter to David Tran, chief executive and founder of Huy Fong Foods. The two had never met, but Underwood pitched the idea anyway of growing jalapenos for him. Tran agreed to 50 acres the first year. When Underwood delivered the peppers on time and another supplier didn't, Tran increased his orders from the Ventura County farmer. Underwood now grows 2,000 acres of peppers for Huy Fong Foods. "We've developed an incredible relationship," Underwood said of Tran. "As an example of his trust and faith in us, he rarely comes out to the fields. We give him quality and consistency."
Machine man: Tran prides himself on making an affordable product that's locally grown. A key reason he hasn't turned to China or Mexico for his peppers is Underwood's reliance on machines to keep labor costs down. About 90% of last year's chili crop was machine harvested. Underwood uses a harvester designed by his operations manager, Jim Roberts, that picks more peppers than other harvesters on the market and leaves twigs, dirt and leaves out. "It has to be perfectly clean when it gets to Huy Fong," Underwood said.
Turning up the heat: Underwood is always looking to maximize flavor and heat in his jalapenos for Huy Fong, which accounts for three-quarters of his business. He conducts between 50 and 100 pepper-growing trials a year to discover varietals with more punch. "Our peppers are much spicier today than they were in the beginning," Underwood said.
Identifying the trends: When Underwood started, he grew vegetables for a frozen-food cooperative in Oxnard. Then demand for frozen vegetables waned, so he switched to baby carrots, beets and mesclun salad. Then it was artichokes, fennel and Brussels sprouts. Opening a produce stand in Somis in 1980 helped him learn what consumers wanted, including rare finds such as yellow seedless watermelon and bicolor sweet corn. "The produce stand was a window into what works," Underwood said. "Talking directly with customers, we learned what was popular that we could also grow for wholesalers."
Loving the challenge: "I always liked peppers because they're a difficult crop," Underwood said. "They're subject to disease and insect pressure. You don't watch it, you can lose the whole crop."
Hooked on Sriracha: Underwood uses Sriracha like ketchup, usually on eggs. He remains awed by the condiment's cult status and embrace by the food industry. Having a big role in the phenomenon is a great source of pride. "Who could have anticipated something like this?" Underwood said. "Most farmers are invisible. Produce goes through a number of hands before it gets to the customer. This is pretty direct. We grow the peppers and it goes straight to the sauce."
Roots and sprouts: Underwood's family has been farming in Ventura County since 1867. His younger daughter, Suzannah Pidduck, works on the family farm. His older daughter, Megan Beatie, runs a book publicity and marketing agency in Los Angeles. Underwood has four grandchildren, the oldest of whom is 9. "They all love the farm," he said.