Preparing the poles and live supports
We planted our first pepper plot using wooden poles as supports. We shaded the vines with shade cloth until they reach the top of the poles. For a new pepper plot, we are growing gliricidia sepium trees to use as live supports. Each tree’s leafy canopy will provide natural shade for the pepper vines.
Planting the cuttings, tying and stapling the vines
We use disease-free cuttings from pepper vines that have just reached the top of their poles. We plant cuttings nourished with our own special mixture of solarised organic fertiliser including soil, lime, animal dung, burnt rice husks, trichoderma fungus, fermentation culture, and palm sugar or molasses.
As the pepper vine grows up the pole, we help its aerial roots to attach to the pole by stapling and tying the vine.
Watering and fertilising
We periodically add natural fertiliser (mainly cow, chicken, duck, and bat manure) near the base of the plants throughout the year, combined with other natural agents such as trichoderma to ensure that the roots remain fungus-free and healthy.
We combine drip irrigation and hand watering to ensure that the pepper plants receive enough moisture throughout the dry season. We take care not to over-water, to avoid root rot (e.g. phytophtora).
Weeding and hygiene
We hand-weed around the base of the plants, and either use machines or hand-weed between the rows. We leave all organic matter on the ground to be reabsorbed into the soil. We never use chemical sprays to kill weeds in the pepper plots.
If any plants become diseased, we isolate and treat the plant until it recovers, or remove the diseased plant and debris from the plot entirely.
During the dry season, we try to collect as much organic material as possible (e.g. grass, branches, leaves) to mulch and spread over the ground between the rows to keep the soil moist and fertile and reduce the frequency of watering.
No poisonous chemical sprays
Because we continually improve the health of the plants and soil organically, we are able to avoid using chemical fungicides or pesticides.
Now we are growing Neem trees (ស្ដៅ – Sdau in the Khmer language) to use in future as a natural ingredient for organic spray and fertiliser. Neem has excellent anti-fungal and pest-repellent properties.
HARVESTING AND PROCESSING
Harvesting the pepper
Harvest season is from December through April. All pepper is hand-picked. It is picked straight into harvesting bags, transferred into clean receptacles, and then transported to the processing area. We harvest in a number of sweeps to ensure that all pepper is picked only when mature.
Separating the red and green peppercorns
Immediately after picking, we pick the red peppercorns off the pepper spikes and sort them by degree of ripeness. We sift the peppercorns to remove dirt, leaves, stalks and undersize peppercorns. To make white pepper, the very ripe red peppercorns are soaked for several days, and their outer skins are removed.
All this work is done by hand and is a very labour-intensive process.
Threshing the pepper spikes
After initial sorting, the green pepper spikes that remain after sorting are put out in the sun to soften up for a day. Then they are into a threshing machine to remove the green peppercorns from the spikes.
Immediately after threshing, the pepper is hand-sifted or machine-winnowed to sort peppercorns for size, and remove leaves and stalks etc. Further hand-sorting by colour is also done.
Following threshing, the pepper is washed several times in clean, filtered water, to remove dirt and other impurities. Undersize and hollow peppercorns, stalks, and other debris are skimmed off and discarded.
The pepper is dipped into boiling water for a few minutes to sterilise and clean it, stabilise the colour, and seal in the flavour.
Red, green and white pepper are dried separately in the sun and wind on our custom-built trays for 2-3 days. The green pepper when dried becomes black pepper, and the red pepper becomes — you guessed it — red pepper. White pepper is made by soaking the ripe red pepper, removing the outer skin, and then drying the white inner core of the peppercorn. We turn the pepper over several times a day to ensure that it dries evenly. The drying trays are wheeled into storage sheds overnight.
STORAGE AND PACKING
Winnowing and storage
We use a specially designed pepper winnowing machine to separate out hollow peppercorns, stalks, leaves and any other chaff, and to grade the peppercorns by weight.
We use another machine to test the dried peppercorns for moisture content, to ensure that they meet international standards.
We pour the peppercorns into double-layer PE bags with silica granule sachets, seal the bags tightly shut, and place them into sacks. We label each sack to track the batch number, and put them into a cool, hygienic and dry storage room on plastic pallets. A dehumidifier is used regularly to keep the facility dry.
Visual inspection and hand-sorting
One more quality control step is carried out before dispatch for export. The premium (Grade 1) peppercorns are spread out on trays and visually inspected and hand-sorted. Irregular, discoloured, mouldy or under-sized peppercorns are removed, as well as any remaining detritus. Any remaining tails are removed from the peppercorns.
We package the peppercorns according to the needs of different customers. We use quality airtight packaging to keep the pepper fresh and dry.