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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 05:37 GMT 06:37 UK
From computer chips to chillies
By Jemima Laing
BBC News Online, Devon

Polytunnel at South Devon Chilli Farm
More than 80 varieties of chilli are grown at South Devon Chilli Farm
As careers go there can be no greater contrast between earning a living as a computer software manager and bringing home the bacon as a chilli farmer.

But lifelong chilli fans Steve Waters and Jason Nickels last year decided to ditch their 9-to-5 existence to devote their lives to the tangy delicacies.

They now grow about 80 varieties of chilli at their Devon site.

The speciality chillies are sold across Devon and on the internet to fellow chilli fiends throughout the UK.

There is certainly no 9-to-5-ing and no two days are the same
Jason Nickels, South Devon Chilli Farm
Jason, 37, and Steve , 45, were working as computer software engineers when they decided to take the plunge and indulge their personal passion.

About 18 months ago they took a lease on a plant nursery at South Milton in the South Hams, planted their first crop and the South Devon Chilli Farm was born.

Buoyed by the success of their initial crop this year they have planted almost 10 times more - 1,200 square metres of polytunnel crammed with dozens of varieties.

They grow about 80 varieties of chilli from the tiny red hot Portuguese Piri Piri to the 12-inch New Mex Big Jim.

Planting takes place in early February and things start to hot up in July when the plants begin to bear fruit with some individual plants producing up to 1,000 tiny chillies.

A hot topic: chilli facts
The chilli is a native of Mexico
Has been used for more than 9,000 years
The Spaniards and Portuguese brought it to the rest of the world in the mid-15th Century
South Devon Chilli Farm's best sellers are Poblanos and Chipotles (Smoked Jalapenos)
Jason and Steve are currently the business' only official employees but come picking time the ranks will swell as their wives and others are drafted in to help.

Jason said: "This is a busy time, we have to get up early to work in the polytunnels before it gets too hot.

"And it's going to get busier."

In addition to growing fresh chillies, the business also has a burgeoning sideline making about 1,500 jars a month of chilli jams, sauces and oils - all cooked by Jason and Steve.

And to feed their customers' chilli habits through the winter the pair dry what does not sell over the summer.

They sell all their produce through a variety of outlets; farmers' markets and local shops as well as through their website where enquiries come from across the UK.

Plans for the future remain fairly modest and they want to accommodate the demands of what Jason calls the "Chilli heads" who, not content with just buying chillies, also want to see the plants growing for themselves.

"That is certainly something for the future, to try to accommodate visitors to the farm,

"We get lots of requests from people who want to come and actually see them growing."

Steve Waters (left) and Jason Nickels
Steve (left) and Jason are currently working on a new hot sauce
Contrary to the ambitions of many fledgling businesses the pair are content to let the business grow organically.

They will continue to supply local outlets and sell over the web but are uncertain about the impact of a speedy expansion on what is essentially a cottage industry.

Jason said: "Expanding production would mean getting an industrial unit.

"We could lose our unique status and become a factory with a small chilli farm stuck on the side, that's not what we want.

"It would be straying from our core business."

The future is also about focusing on the development of new products, they are working on what Jason describes as a "Tabasco-style" hot sauce as well as the launch of a new chilli chocolate which went on sale last week.

So can Jason explain the chilli's special allure?

'Certainly addictive'

He said: "It's strange really.

"It's certainly addictive, not in a chemical sense, but once people get into chillies they just seem to want to explore further.

"It's not always about the heat because not all chillies are hot, it's also about the flavour."

Eighteen months into the endeavour the decision to make their hobby their livelihood is paying off with each now drawing a small salary.

And Jason has no complaints about freeing himself from the office environment to enjoy a life largely spent in the great outdoors.

"I was disillusioned to a certain extent with the humdrum of 9-to-5 and now life couldn't be more different.

"There is certainly no 9 -to-5-ing and no two days are the same now."

Chilli boy feels no heat
28 May 02  |  South Asia
Why chillies are so hot
25 Jul 01  |  Science/Nature


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