WESLACO — If you’re not into joining groups and you like chile peppers, this may be your kind of organization: anybody can join and there are no officers, dues, or fees.
It’s called the National Pepper Conference and its co-founder, who started this “club” in 1972, says they are “totally unorganized,” yet it is the most successful international agricultural organization he’s ever seen.
He should know. He is Dr. Ben Villalon, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco. Professor emeritus, he says, means he is officially retired, yet he continues working but doesn’t get paid.
Villalon, a native of Edcouch, is a respected plant virologist and pepper breeder who worked all but two years of his career at the Weslaco agricultural research center. Of his many achievements and contributions to agriculture, he is probably best known for having developed the mild jalapeno, a cross between a serrano pepper and a bell pepper, that helped revolutionize the salsa industry.
Before Villalon’s mild peppers, salsa makers who wanted a tamer version of their products were forced to water down their salsas with tomato paste and water. The results were often less than successful.
But once mild peppers became available, processors could concentrate on making their salsas tasty, without the worry of consumers biting into pieces of hot pepper.
An explosion in salsa sales followed, making them the best- selling condiment in the United States. For several years now, salsas have been outselling the ex-champion ketchup by a margin of two-to-one.
The National Pepper Conference will hold its 14th biennial conference at the Marriott River Center in San Antonio on Oct. 13-15.
Expected attendance, Villalon said, is about 250 “chile heads” from 36 states and 17 foreign countries. Among them are scientists, seed and chemical company representatives, major processing firms (including Pace, Old El Paso, La Victoria, Frito-Lay, and McIlhenny), growers, pepper magazine publishers, home gardeners, and just plain chile afficionados.
The three-day event will kick off on Oct. 13 with registration and a mariachi reception. Wednesday’s events will feature an all-day tour of processing plants, nurseries, mechanically-harvested chile trials, the Institute of Texas Culture, and a final stop at La Villita, a cultural center in San Antonio.
Thursday will feature a full day of sessions covering everything from research on pepper genetics to pest and cultural management of peppers.
The idea of organizing (or un-organizing) such a group came to Villalon while he and Dr. Tom Zitter, a plant pathologist from Florida, were walking through a jalapeno field near Weslaco some 26 years ago. The two were discussing chile virus diseases and breeding programs when they decided it would be a good idea to gather pepper research scientists for the exchange of information and germplasm.
As other researchers learned of the idea, the response was overwhelming, leading to the first National Pepper Conference, held here in the Rio Grande Valley in April 1973.
All types of peppers were discussed and continue to be part of the conferences: bell, long green/red chiles, high color paprika, ancho, pimiento cayenne, Tabasco, jalapeno, yellow pickling, serrano, and cherry types.
Over the years, as the interest and demand for peppers increased worldwide, so did the “non-membership” of the National Pepper Conference, estimated today to include some 2,000 people.
For more information, contact Villalon or Dr. Lynn Brandenberger at the Weslaco Center at (956) 968-5585, or visit the conference web site at http://extension-horticulture.tamu.edu/southtex/npc/