And whether it’s manmade or not, the water is rising in the Delta…
For more than a century, gumbo lovers and oyster aficionados all over the world have enjoyed their meals with a dash from that infamous red-capped bottle in order to add some spice and thrill to their food. The most well-known hot sauce in the United States as well as many other spots worldwide is Tabasco Hot Sauce. Tabasco Hot Sauce began being produced in 1868 and has since proliferated to more than 160 countries – becoming one of the most well-known hot sauce brands all over the world. What’s not known about this hot sauce, however, is that every single one of the bottles produced comes from Avery Island, Louisiana. However, now the production of this amazing sauce as well as its dominant position in the hot sauce market is under threat as Avery Island is geographically prone to flooding and hurricanes, of which everyone in the southeastern U.S. was reminded of this past hurricane season. The McIlhenny family has been consistently dedicated to maintaining the Tabasco tradition for more than five generations, but the McIlhennys must be ready to face the possible consequences of a changing climate and its effects on the severity of hurricanes if they want to continue their incredible legacy.
The recipe of the Tabasco Hot Sauce has been the same since the very beginning – consisting of salt, vinegar, and most importantly – the Tabasco peppers. The production of these peppers has also remained confined to the same region up until recently. The family has been growing these peppers on Avery Island since the sauce’s inception. However, they’ve had to expand to South America and Central America to fulfill the growing worldwide demand for the sauce.
The Avery Island salt mine might be an ideal spot for growing peppers – but it is also especially vulnerable to flooding as it is only 160 feet above sea level. The rising water levels in recent decades due to some powerful hurricanes and a climate that seems to be changing poses a great threat for Avery Island’s existence altogether, and will take with it any hint of the Tabasco peppers growing in the region for more than a century. Additionally, the land continues to sink by an inch every year – hence making the situation even more complex and dangerous. In fact, it has been predicted that eventually Avery Island could be wiped off the Louisiana map altogether.
The bottom line: The pepper field in Avery Island and the Tabasco seed bank must go through frequent hurricanes and flooding in order to survive the climate change. In fact, Hurricane Rita in 2005 flooded the fields of Tabasco peppers and caused storm surges and flooding at 9 feet 8 inches. The storage facility was holding around 50,000 barrels of inventory, which came within just a few inches of being flooded and ruined. Subsequently, the McIlhennys spent millions of dollars in order to construct a levee that was 17 feet high as well as a backup generator in order to keep their operations safe and running in the case of a flood event in the future.
Avery Island is consistently battling saltwater intrusion which ends up eroding the wetland and killing the marsh grass. In fact, the region is said to be vanishing at a very quick pace and the sea level forecasts continue to get worse.
The good thing is the McIlhennys began to diversify their supply chain at the right time. Most of the pepper plants are grown abroad now, although the seeds are still cultivated in Avery Island. Is this enough to make up for the devastating potential effects of climate change? Not really. The Tabasco chili itself can be a point of failure for the whole supply chain. This is because the crop can be killed overnight just due to a simple freeze, a change in the length of the seasons, or any other unpredictable atmospheric change to the crops. This can damage the growth of the crops itself and render them useless. While the diversification of the geographic regions growing this crop can mitigate some of these problems, it is not going to fully shield the Tabasco crop in the long run.
Apart from the yield of the crops, another important issue is the “global weirding” of the crops. This phenomenon is relatively new and basically involves the crops developing unexpected flavors and colors in a bout of variability in the quality of the crops. This is mainly due to the effects of climatic stress and can also lead to delayed or untimely yields of the pepper. The question is, will the company be able to grapple with these issues and somehow be able to find a solution for the increased variability in their supply?
One positive aspect of Tabasco’s sauce is that is does not contain a lot of ingredients, and as a result the peppers could be grown elsewhere, allowing the company to stay afloat. However, the problem appears to be bigger than this. The McIlhennys have continued to invest in their local business which happened to end up going international. The possible displacement of these crops and the region of the company’s base operations would mean that the company will lose its Louisiana roots and might have to shift away from a region that has accommodated them for more than a century. Moreover, the possibility of replacing their salt source, corporate headquarters and production facility will also be a significant challenge for the company.
The McIlhennys aren’t going without a fight. They have invested around $1 million to construct a dam that will re-engineer the flow of water in the area as well as restore the nearby grass marshes. The project you see pictured above is sea wall that I built for a client in New Hanover county. I expect that they are supremely pleased at their decision to place this storm wall over 25 pilings surrounding the coastal side of their estate. The number of storms over the years that have loaded saltwater and debris onto my wall from the bay side while saving the fresh water on a dammed dead mans creek. The fresh water side has an actuated door that will hold the fresh water in until the load from the salt water flooding on the coastal side departs , when the hydro static pressure equalizes the fresh water side can the drain out. The wall was designed to 11.4 plus 4 above msl.
In Avery Island They have also formed a partnership with other private property owners in the National Audubon Society and the Vermilion Bay in an effort to pool resources and protect the local habitat and ecology. With the heritage of more than a century under threat, continuing to produce the world famous pepper sauce is important for the McIlhenny family, and only time will tell whether or not they can be successful in keeping this great Louisiana tradition alive.