“Rooster” and Marianne Fricke have a successful business growing chili peppers on their microfarm in Woods Hole.Written by Lannan M. O’Brien | Photography by Derrick Zellmann
Less than a five-minute drive from Nobska Light is a house with a beautifully landscaped yard, seemingly similar to the other properties in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. But packed into the one-third acre of land is a world of color and flavor produced by the spicy fruit grown there: the chili pepper.
If pepper farming is a science, then husband-and-wife team Rooster and Marianne Fricke have mastered it. Through Nobska Farms, their business and the microfarm where they live, the couple grows a wide range of chili peppers used in their trademarked products, including hot sauces, Chipotle seasoning, salsa and even chocolates, which are produced in a commercial kitchen.
When we visited in September, about 80 varieties of peppers were growing at the farm; since starting the business in 2012, Rooster estimates that they’ve grown about 300 varieties total. “The ones that are good for us are large, they’re meaty and they’re productive,” says Rooster, who received the nickname from his grandfather as a child (he prefers to keep his given name to himself). Walking through their crops, he and Marianne point out various plants and identify them by name—Maule’s Red Hots from Philadelphia, Spanish Nora, Rezha Macedonians and yellow ají limons from Peru. A few they can’t identify since they received them as gifts, so they’ve given them nicknames, much like the “Big Red Rooster” himself.
Formerly a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Rooster practices farming methods based on his professional background. “There’s a huge amount of science and technology and engineering involved in this,” he says. For their business, Rooster’s scientific knowledge pairs well with Marianne’s landscaping expertise (she also runs a separate gardening business). With help from friend Billy Nies, he and Marianne recently developed a Chinook™ Garden Shelter system using hoops, raised garden bed frames and coverings that allows for four-season gardening. “It’s applicable even in the concrete canyons of Boston or New York,” says Rooster, where apartment dwellers could use the system to garden on their balconies.
They sell the components as kits, and at their own farm use the shelter systems to grow crops year-round, all of which is done using organic methods. “We’re using the microbes in the soil to feed our plants,” says Rooster. For example, he says, materials with complex, large molecules—in this case, shredded pizza boxes and organic straw—are spread over their mulch to feed fungi, which in turn, deliver phosphorous to the plants. The other principal microbe, bacteria, acts as the conduit for bringing nitrogen to the plants through soil.
As he talks, Rooster pauses every so often to crouch down and hold up a chili pepper. Each varies in color—yellow, orange, red, brown, even multi-colored—as well as texture, shape and of course heat level on the Scoville scale. While Devil’s Tongue is “blazing hot,” Rooster says, it’s only 400,000 Scoville heat units compared to the Carolina Reaper’s 2,200,000. And yet, when offering tastings at farmers’ markets, they keep the size of the Devil’s Tongue sample to that of the head of a pin. “People say, ‘Oh no, that can’t possibly be hot’… We’ll put it on a toothpick and it’s amazing how incapacitating it can be, causing you to tear up, [get] nose runs, sweat. It’s an incredibly powerful chemical,” Rooster says.
One of many lessons learned through their work is that a person’s heat tolerance is unidentifiable by age, gender or appearance. “We’ve had little old ladies come by [our farmers’ market booth] and take a big dip of something and we’ll say, ‘It’s hot’ because we’re kind of nervous, and they’ll just walk away and say ‘That’s good,’” says Marianne. “Then you’ll get a big jock guy who can’t take the heat.”
But perhaps the most meaningful life lessons stem from the many cultural—and personal—stories their customers share about their favorite peppers. The chili varieties grown at Nobska Farms come from all over the world because, as Marianne says, “Most places have a [native] pepper, so most peppers have a story that goes with the place.” While discussing one of the world’s hottest peppers, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, with guests from Trinidad, she and Rooster learned that Trinidadians would not simply hand someone a super hot pepper and encourage them to try it. Instead, Rooster says, “If you want to transfer it, you put it on a table—and if the person so chooses, they can pick it up.”
Other stories are more personal or family-related. Often, people approach the couple at farmers’ markets to ask them if they grow particular varieties; usually, attached to the request is a memory of grandparents using the pepper for an old recipe or a peculiar family cooking method that requires it. Curious themselves, Rooster and Marianne have acquired the rare seeds sought by their customers over the years to make their pepper dreams come true. In this way, Marianne says, “We meet all kinds of people.” And that, she and Rooster agree, is the best part of what they do.
Nobska Farms products are available at online and at local farmers’ markets and retailers.
Bartlett’s Farm: Nantucket
Bean & Cod: Falmouth
Bradford’s Hardware: Hyannis
Cape Abilities: Dennis, Chatham
Cape Cod Beer: Hyannis
Cook Shop: Brewster
Curiouser & Curiouser: Wellfleet
Delicious Living Nutrition: Sandwich
Go Go Gifts: Terminal C, Logan Airport
Kandy Korner: Hyannis
LeRoux Kitchen: Falmouth, Vineyard Haven
Little Beach Gallery: Hyannis
Marty’s Fine Wines: Newton
Orleans Whole Food Store: Orleans
Pie in the Sky: Woods Hole
Quick’s Hole Taqueria: Woods Hole
Robin’s Toffee by the Sea: West Yarmouth
The Local Juice: Hyannis
The Local Scoop: Orleans
The Market: Pinehills, Plymouth
Tony Andrews Farm: East Falmouth
West Falmouth Market: West Falmouth
Windfall Market: Falmouth
Wish Gift Co.: Sandwich, Mashpee Commons
Woods Hole Market: Woods Hole