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Tom Curren and Wife Kathy Neustadt are tracking down the Merrimack Wonder Pepper

Aug 30, 2019 09:50AM ● By Jessica Bowman

Photo From The Valley News

For the last five years Tom Curren, a farmer in Canaan, New Hampshire, has been planning a revolutionary comeback of one of Merrimack’s legendary peppers. This pepper, aptly titled the Merrimack Wonder Pepper, was developed by J.R. Hepler, a researcher of UNH, during the post-World War I push for self-sufficiency. This pepper was able to yield produce quicker and withstand cold better than other peppers.

The Merrimack Farmer’s Exchange (MFE) sold this pepper for years and thrived on selling farm supplies in retail stores across New Hampshire for decades. Then in 1982, the MFE hit devastating financial and managerial issues that led to some drastic decisions. The company decided to sell their Merrimack Wonder Peppers.

Their cooperative got a good payout which helped them from having to fire any of their farmers for budget cuts. Unfortunately, no one had the foresight to save the seeds in stock. Thus, the pepper fell into obscurity.

Tom Curren, through his connections with the MFE became interested in tracking down this legendary boon to farmers. The Merrimack Wonder Pepper has a gestation period of 60-days, quite an accomplishment when a typical bell peppers gestation period is 75-90 days. Normally growing peppers is like playing hide and seek with the cold, Curren claimed. The Merrimack Wonder Pepper solves those problems.

With the help of his wife, Kathy Neustadt, Curren is now reintroducing the peppers to the region, allowing a wondrous comeback. At one point, Neustadt thought she had done it. A member of Danbury Grows, a local gardening group Neustadt is involved in, found a packet folded up in a jar in her kitchen. Neustadt and Curren set about trying to get the seeds to grow in extreme isolation to avoid crossbreeding. Unfortunately, the decade-old seeds failed to take root.

Curren and Neustadt didn’t give up however, they continued their search for years until about four years ago they came across the pepper again. Curren is a land conservationist and as such, travels extensively for his job. One day he came across a seed collector in Pennsylvania who located a packet of the rare seeds, and mailed them to Curren.

Since then Curren and Neustadt have meticulously planned the Merrimack Wonder Peppers comeback. They had planted to seeds, rooted them, and each year they foster out seeds to member of Danbury Grows. Curren and Neustadt then re-home seedlings to additional members, friends, and neighbors, with strict instructions to keep the seeds in isolation in order to avoid crossbreeding.

The idea for Neustadt and Curren was that the population of the pepper would not fall on any one person. Part of the problem with losing the peppers back in the ’80s was that MFE was the only company that had access to the seeds. When the responsibility falls on more than one person it becomes much easier to grow, nurture and keep the seeds in rotation.

After four years, Neustadt and Curren have finally achieved critical mass and have begun to sell seed packets for the peppers at the Blazing Star Grange in Danbury. The seed packets are handmade with the peppers story written on the back. Curren and Neustadt are currently selling them for $4 a piece.

The story with the Merrimack Wonder Pepper is growing still. Curren has been in touch with Fedco seeds, a Maine based seed cooperative, and they have agreed to do a trial run with the seeds to see if they do as Curren claims. If all goes well, Fedco may begin to sell the seeds and attempt to contract with a grower to produce them for the following season.

This could mean bounds of advancement for pepper farmers in the Vermont/New Hampshire area. With luck, Curren and Neustadt will have provided a great service for farmers in the region and left their mark in the world via the Merrimack Wonder Pepper. Now they may enjoy the fruits of their harvest.

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