‘Dr. Pepper’ honored at 40th anniversary of International Pepper Conference

WESLACO  —  Dr. Ben Villalon, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research professor emeritus, was honored recently for creating and maintaining the National Pepper Conference, an event that draws chile aficionados from throughout the world and is now known as the International Pepper Conference.

Dr. Ben Villalon, a Texas AgriLife Research professor emeritus, was recently honored for having created the International Pepper Conference 40 years ago. (Photo courtesy of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce)

Villalon, nicknamed “Dr. Pepper”during his many years as a pepper breeder in South Texas, was presented a founders award at the event’s 40th anniversary held recently in Naples, Fla.

“The International Pepper Conference has come a long way since Dr. Villalon and Dr. Tom Zitter first tossed around the idea of holding a meeting to draw together researchers for the exchange of information and germplasm back in 1972,” said Gene McAvoy, a county Extension director in La Belle, Fla. and this year’s conference organizer.

“The International Pepper Conference has since emerged as the premier venue for the dissemination and exchange of information on capsicum,” he said.

Villalon, now retired, was at the time a plant virologist and pepper breeder at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco. Zitter was a plant pathologist in Belle Glade, Fla. The two were discussing viral diseases and breeding efforts of peppers during Villalon’s visit to Florida in 1972.

“We talked about the idea of organizing all pepper research scientists,” he said. “Zitter and I snail-mailed a questionnaire to a list of people that might be interested in attending. The response was tremendous. The National Pepper conference was created and we hosted 100 people at our first gathering in McAllen and Weslaco on April 25, 1973.”

Attendees included plant pathologists, breeders, horticulturists, geneticists, physiologists and virologists, Villalon said. Topics discussed included bacterial diseases, breeding, mechanization, processing, and the evaluation and physiology of cultivars. A wide variety of peppers were discussed, including bell, long green and red chile, high color paprika, ancho, pimiento, cayenne, tabasco, jalapeno, serrano, cherry types and others.

“At that first conference, a group of us formed an organizational committee and made recommendations on the direction future pepper conferences would take,” Villalon said. “We decided, for example, to have the conference every two years in major production areas, such as California, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, etc. We also agreed to have no officers or annual dues; it would all be non-profit. And every two years, we hold a conference that was better than the last. That’s probably why it’s still around after 40 years.”

Villalon has never had illusions of the conference as a highly structured event.

“This is the most unorganized but most fruitful scientific organization I have ever belonged to,” he said. “Much of its success comes from the fact that chile is the most important ingredient in the world due to its nutritional and health aspects.”

Since its inception, the conference has always had an international flair.

“Even at that first conference in 1973, some researchers from Mexico attended,” Villalon said. “Soon we had them coming from about 35 tropical countries in the world that grow peppers. Then they started coming from all over the world. So, in 1998 we formally changed the name to the International Pepper Conference, but it’s always been international.”

In 1982, the conference took its first steps outside the U.S. when it was held in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In 2004, it was held in Tampico, Mexico where some 600 people attended. The next conference will be held in Santiago, Chile.

This year’s event, held Nov. 4–6 at the Waldorf Astoria in Naples, Fla., drew 183 scientists from as far away as Portugal, China, India, Nigeria, Bolivia and Belgium.

Zitter gave the keynote address and was presented a similar award.

Among the many virus-resistant peppers Villalon developed and released during his career was the world’s first commercial mild jalapeno pepper in 1981.

“That mild pepper is the one that opened the floodgates,” he said. “People the world over could now enjoy the flavor of pepper without the bite. Eventually, that led to salsa overtaking ketchup as the best-selling condiment in the U.S.”

The interest and demand for peppers increased dramatically worldwide in the years that followed.

“New pepper varieties with higher amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, antioxidants and many other healthful phytochemicals have been developed due to this conference, and more are on the way.”

Many research scientists have attended the conferences religiously over the years, representing various disciplines of pepper research, including breeding, genetics, virology, molecular biology, physiology, entomology, pathology and horticulture, he said.

“But these conferences are not all work and no play,” Villalon concluded. “We throw fiestas, dances, tours, floor shows, lots of activities just to spice things up, pun intended.”

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