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Sunday, December 28, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2013

Pepper plants grow a thriving business

BY MARY ALICE POWELL
BLADE COLUMNIST
Becky McMordie and  Michael VanBrunt grow, dry, and process Italian and Mexican garlic varieties to use in their MyBecs spice mixes. Becky McMordie and Michael VanBrunt grow, dry, and process Italian and Mexican garlic varieties to use in their MyBecs spice mixes.
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When Becky McMordie and Michael VanBrunt planted 10 pepper plants in their farmhouse garden in Lenawee County, they worried that they had been too ambitious.

That was 15 years ago, and they know now that planting big was one of the smartest things they could have done. The hundreds of peppers the 10 plants produced were the beginning of MyBecs, their cottage industry, that is highly respected in southern Michigan and is recognized internationally.

Michael remembers the first pepper harvest as overwhelming. “We just didn’t know how many peppers there would be. It was a bad joke that turned good.”

It forced the pair of entrepreneurs to experiment to save the harvest.

“We don’t like to throw anything away,” Becky says.

“We first thought that making hot sauce was a brilliant idea. But then we would have to grow tomatoes,” she said. A check of the markets showed an ample supply of locally made hot sauces.

That’s when Becky turned on the oven to dry the peppers and to experiment with the process that now produces 17 MyBecs products sold in shaker jars and another in the planning stage.

After spending a couple of hours with Becky and Michael at their farm home near Onsted, it was apparent that their success is based on teamwork. They each have a responsibility that makes it work. For example, Michael designed the labels, while Becky prints them on the computer.

Becky is ecstatic about her new hydrator with 24 shelves and a one-hour drying time, compared to the old one with four shelves. She also is the one-woman sales force who takes the MyBecs spices to stores and restaurants and is proud to tell possible customers that she has shipped the products to South Korea, Hawaii, and Mexico. She also takes the products to farmers’ markets, including to the Walker Tavern in Brooklyn, Mich., on Sundays.

Whenever anyone asks about the unusual company name, she blushes as she explains it is Michael’s term of endearment that means “My Becky.”

Becky plants pepper and garlic seeds in the greenhouse in December. The new plants next year are grown from this year’s seeds.

Michael researched the most efficient way to grow peppers and garlic without the use of chemicals and has done equal homework studying the Michigan state rules and regulations for a home food business and has a thick book to prove it.

He is also the developer of the spice mixes. Some, including Hungarian paprika and Italian, were suggested by customers. He is anxious for Grillers, his newest mix, to be put on the market, but he has given up on curry powder because some of the spices in it are native to a tropical climate. He doesn’t say what’s in Grillers, only that he is anxiously waiting for the current garlic harvest to be ready. His greatest hope is that one day a chef in a fine restaurant will use his products in recipes.

After the garlic bulbs are pulled, they are dried for one month before being processed.

Select, a blend of five peppers, has been their leading product, but the garlic product is quickly moving up as a close second that is ordered by the case by regular customers. Michael believes it is popular because it is fresher than the average supermarket garlic products.

Conversation with Michael is a lesson in pepper varieties. He explains that when smoked, jalapenos become chipotle and that paprika peppers serve three purposes. When the seeds are removed they are sweet; when the seeds are left in, they are hot, or they can be smoked.

Sales have taught him the general population prefers “mouth heat.”

The 25-foot trailer next to the three new buildings is where the business began. They explained the Michigan food inspector advised them to move the budding business into the trailer for convenience and sanitation.

“We can’t tell you how many people have helped us,” Becky says as she lists things that were given to them, including a wagon, a stainless steel table, a greenhouse, windows for the garlic shed, and a scale.

“We just know that this is where we are supposed to be.”

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com



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