In what could be a page from the movie script for “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” plant breeders have developed the colored baby bell pepper, a spitting image of its parents but about one-third the size.
Creve Coeur, Mo.-based Monsanto launched the babies with two grower-partners under the BellaFina brand about three years ago.
The baby bells have seen annual growth of 50% since they were introduced in fall 2011, said Bill McCarthy, pepper breeder.
“The demand is exceeding supply,” he said. “So basically right now we’re in the growth segment where we’re just trying to produce enough acres of the product to supply the demand.”
Once that happens, McCarthy said he and fellow breeders will fine-tune the varieties to enhance natural disease resistance while still keeping the flavor.
Randy Bailey, owner and president of Oxford, N.C.-based Bailey Farms Inc. — one of the two partners — has seen strong growth with the baby bells. But he was quick to put it in perspective.
“We started three years ago from scratch, so it’s grown well since then,” he said. “It’s picking up some, but demand for the pointed miniature sweets is still much higher at the moment.”
Bailey said the baby bells offer a value to consumers compared to their full-sized counterparts.
Consumers typically cut a colored bell in half, chop up part of it and throw it in a salad. Then they’re stuck with storing the other half in the refrigerator, often forgetting about it before it spoils, he said.
But the baby bell lets consumers use the entire pepper in a salad without any leftovers.
“It’s got a thick wall, just like the bells, but it’s for a smaller use,” Bailey said. “You can still snack on them — it’s a good item.”
The grower-packer has its own fields in south Florida and North Carolina and works with other growers in north Florida and Georgia to ensure year-round supplies.
Bailey Farms offers BellaFinas in a three-pack and in 12-ounce and 2-pound high-graphic handled pouch bags.
Fresno, Calif.-based Baloian Farms — the other grower-partner — sees so much growth in the miniature pepper category that it has invested in packing equipment designed specifically for small peppers, said Jeremy Lane, sales manager.
“They’re becoming more and more of the sweet pepper category when you study retail sales,” he said of miniature peppers in general.
“The growth is exciting. Miniatures and baby specialties and value-added are taking up a bigger part of the category every year.”