December 26, 2017
By Marlee Moore
Siblings Julie Smith Madison and David Smith pick peppers on their farm in Fayette County.
In the small, unassuming town of Fayette, tiny tabascos, crimson cayenne and heaps of jalapeno peppers are spicing up dishes across the Southeast.
The company? Hot sauce-making Alabama Sunshine LLC.
The masterminds? Siblings David Smith and Julie Smith Madison.
“We’ve really tried to stay with that farm-to-table feel,” said Madison, 41, a special education teacher-turned-pepper-farmer. “Mr. Fred did this because he liked growing peppers. It just so happened he made them into hot sauce.”
That’s Fred Smith, Alabama Sunshine founder (and patriarch of a different set of Smiths). The current owners bought the business and its pile of pepper recipes in July 2016.
In addition to nine hot sauce recipes like orange habanero, cayenne and original red jalapeno, Smith and Madison stir up wing sauce, salsa, chow chow and hot pepper relish. Carolina-style barbecue sauce is available for slathering on slow-cooked meats, too, as is Smith’s favorite white barbecue sauce.
Madison and Smith put a twist on the capsicum, or pepper, craze through products like spicy pineapple and strawberry jams. For a quick holiday treat, self-proclaimed foodie Madison combines turkey meatballs with half a jar each of pineapple jam and barbecue sauce. Cook low and slow in a crock pot, and she said party-goers gobble ‘em up.
The siblings are Fayette County natives, though Smith and parents Garvin and Charlotte moved to Indiana after Madison graduated high school. Growing up, Smith teased Mr. Fred about his passion for peppers, joking, “When you get ready to sell, I’ll buy the business.”
The Smiths moved home six years ago, rekindled the hot sauce conversation and got their first taste of farm life transplanting 5,000 peppers in April 2016.
“Before we started this, I was beating the drum of supporting organic and buying organic,” said Madison, who learned about pesticides and growing techniques from Alabama Extension agents. “Then you’re standing in a field, and you’ve got thousands of dollars tied up in plants. You have to decide — I’m going to lose them, or I’m going to put a product on them that is safe.
“We’re committed to using the lowest level of defense against threats to our crops while producing safe, effective results.”
In two days, Madison, Smith, their parents and a handful of local teenagers can pull 1,500 pounds of peppers. One hundred twenty pounds produce a 40-gallon pot of sauce, and each pot yields 50 cases — a heap of hot sauce.
“It’s been a real eye-opening experience for me to try and get labor,” said Madison, who has 19-year-old Kathrine and 16-year-old Emma with husband Matt. “They produce at such a heavy rate, we can’t pick that fast. My girls are interested in the food aspect, but if I say anything about picking peppers, they kind of disappear.”
Smith and Madison grow 13 pepper varieties on their fourth-generation family property and contract with a local grower for three more varieties to bring the heat.
“I like the picking and the tractors,” said Smith, 38, who delivers to around 200 retailers from Fayette to Panama City. Florida. “I always liked to learn, and I like being a farmer.”
Alabama Sunshine peppers grow on plasticulture and are hand-picked. Charlotte said plucking stems off peppers while harvesting is a must, especially for tiny tabascos.
“Fred continues to tell me he’s going to come sit and pick the tabasco,” said Charlotte, while swiftly using American Sign Language to communicate with her son, who has hearing loss. “He said that is the best therapy in the world. But it’s not working for me!”
Freshly washed peppers head to the steam kettle, followed by a quick trip to the blender. Madison seasons the pepper puree according to secret recipes, and then it’s back to the kettle to boil.
Depending on the frequency of batches, Alabama Sunshine could hand-bottle and label 150 cases of product a week. Automation is on Madison’s 10-year wish list.
So is extending Alabama Sunshine’s brand onto more Southern supermarket shelves. The hot sauce already turns up the heat in restaurants, gift shops and Piggly Wiggly stores.
Taste-testing and cooking up a storm honed Madison’s taste buds. When dining out, she subconsciously analyzes spices, flavorings and textures.
She swears the kitchen — not the pepper farm — is her domain, and her focus remains on farm-to-table products with Alabama-grown ingredients.
“You start looking at the recipes, and it’s kind of genius the way Mr. Fred paired certain peppers with certain spices,” Madison said. “It’ll kind of spin a new idea in your mind.”
Learn more at AlabamaSunshine.com, or find Alabama Sunshine on Facebook and Instagram.