SALINAS, Calif. — The Salinas Valley is best known for its lettuce and leafy greens. But just to the north, Gilroy is home to a year-round grower-shipper of bell peppers and chilies — Uesugi Farms.

“There aren’t a lot of guys doing this,” said Pete Aiello, co-owner of Uesugi Farms. “There are really only a handful of us at this level of volume and production in the bell pepper deal. Prime Time (International), Baloian (Farms) and Sun World are well known for their programs.

“I consider us one of the bigger players in the pepper deal. If we’re not the biggest chili player in California, we’re one of the biggest.”

Uesugi has about 500 acres of bell peppers in production in Mexico this spring up to early July. A smaller desert deal starts in California’s Coachella and Imperial valleys in late April.

The company, which offers several other commodities, grows about 1,300 acres of peppers in the Golden State. Most of it is in Bakersfield, Gilroy, Hollister and Brentwood.

Bakersfield peppers are cooled and shipped from Gilroy from mid-June to early August. Gilroy and Hollister run mid-July through October. Uesugi Farms offers red, yellow and green bells, plus all the chili varieties. The chilies include the notoriously hot ghost peppers, some of which are grown in a Salinas greenhouse. Ghosts start packing in June.

“It’s a very risky crop and difficult to grow,” Aiello said. “We don’t like doing things the easy way.”

By the first week of April, Uesugi had just finished planting its Bakersfield peppers.

“I expect production to be higher in all areas,” Aiello said, attributing that to a mostly mild winter. “Last year we had some pretty tough sledding in the desert and Bakersfield. In Gilroy most of our fields were good but we had a couple stinkers with disease that really wiped our yield out. We haven’t planted Gilroy yet but I’m eternally optimistic.”

Uesugi Farms also grows napa cabbage, pumpkins, strawberries, sweet corn and — for the processed market — dry beans. One bonus is that the napa cabbage and the grower-shipper’s Japanese name seem to connect with Asian consumers in the nearby San Francisco Bay Area, Aiello said.

“It helps,” he said. “We purchased the company in 1979 from George Uesugi and kept the name.”

Expansion planned

This summer, Uesugi Farms also plans to start construction of a 1,200-square-foot retail store in Gilroy. It’s expected to open in spring 2013 and operate during growing season. Besides Uesugi produce, other locally grown items will be on offer.

Toward the end of 2012, the company plans to start expanding its Gilroy packing facility.

“It looks like we’ll construct an additional line for red and yellow bell peppers for next year,” Aiello said. The plan is to double capacity on an existing 5,000-square-foot building.

Uesugi’s green bells from Bakersfield are now packed in Gilroy, but reds and yellows are still field-packed.

“We’re looking for ways to make that a little more efficient,” Aiello said.