A friend of mine is in charge of the “organic program” for one of the largest carrot producers in the world.  I remember when I first met him I sheepishly asked him about a problem we were having growing the ubiquitous orange vegetable .  I assumed that on the scale that he farms on, they would have figured everything out.  “Oh no,” he said, “we have the same problem.  What do you do about it on your farm?”
Nothing about growing organic carrots is easy.  Even for the experts.

It’s true that there are few insects that bother carrots above the ground.  In fact, carrots and other plants in their family (cilantro, fennel, celery) actually attract “beneficial” insects that eat a number of pest insects.  Having them growing on your farm tends to reduce bug problems on other crops.

Carrots are also amazingly, incredibly productive.  An acre of carrots produces more weight of crop than an acre of potatoes, for example.  Because they are narrow, straight and grow vertically, you can pack a hundred of them into a square foot of soil.  And yet they do not require lots of fertilizer; in fact, excessive amounts will make the carrots hairy and unattractive.

On the flip side, carrots are exceedingly weak plants when young.

Their seeds take weeks to sprout in the soil, and their leaves are delicate and ferny.  This makes them vulnerable to hot weather and wind that can kill them quickly.  Ideally one would not plant them at all during the summer, especially not here where it is so hot and dry.  But in order to have carrots to harvest in the fall, they must be planted in mid-summer.

The reason our carrots are late this year is because our first fall planting, done in mid-July, was wiped out by the heatwave that month.  We also lost most of our third planting, done in mid-August, during the heat over Labor Day.

The only way of keeping carrots alive when they are small is to irrigate them every day.  But this also encourages weeds, which grow faster and stronger.  In order to weed the fields — by tractor and by hand — we have to turn off the water.  We have lost numerous carrot fields over the years when faced with this impossible choice.

As I mentioned last week, mechanized carrot harvesters are expensive, hard to come by, and impossible to justify for a farm like ours that grows just a few acres each year.  So when it comes time to dig our carrots, we do it by hand — with a pitchfork.  It’s a painfully slow task, although not a particularly difficult or unpleasant one.

Even if somehow we came across a mechanical harvester, we couldn’t use it.  The French carrot varieties that we grow are too fragile and the tops aren’t strong enough to withstand the rough treatment.  In fact, we can’t even wash them with the machine we use to wash beets, leeks, and potatoes.  Instead we wash them with a hose, one a bunch at a time.   Enjoy.