It might surprise you, but for over 25 years, we’ve been one of the largest carrot growers in the Sacramento area. But that is a deceptive statistic. Very few farmers grow carrots at all in this area, so the 4 or 5 acres we grow each year put us at the top of a very short list.
California produces most of the carrots grown in the U.S, but the majority of them are grown at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley — in Kern and Fresno counties. If you’ve driven through those areas, you’ve probably passed semi-trucks pulling trailer loads of dirty orange carrots on their way to a processing plant. Each of those trucks is probably carrying as many carrots as we harvest in a year.
Despite their ubiquity in salad bars, soups and schoolkids’ lunches, carrots are challenging to grow. They start as tiny seeds that grow into frail seedlings that are vulnerable to heat, wind and weeds. To produce nice straight roots, they require loose, sandy soil. And they are even more challenging to provide on a year-round basis, since they are extremely difficult to harvest during wet weather.
The primary reason why Kern County is the U.S. epicenter of carrot farming is due to its consistently low annual rainfall — less than 4 inches — and mild winter temperatures. Carrot fields there are irrigated even during the “rainy” season. Here at Terra Firma, we generally get over 20 inches of precipitation every winter and rarely irrigate our carrots after mid-November.
Natural rainfall is one reason our carrots taste better than supermarket ones. Another is the colder temperatures here in the winter, which raises the sugar level and softening cellulose that can make the roots more fibrous. Even in July, though, our carrots taste better than their Kern County cousins.
That’s because the carrots they grow in Kern County and the carrots we grow here are not the same carrots — as any TFF subscriber likely has guessed. Commodity carrots are bred for rough handling: they are mechanically and washed in machines, then stored for many months. Our carrots look completely different — they are usually blunt-tipped and have a glow that no supermarket carrot ever has. And they certainly don’t taste the same. They are brittle and fragile, poorly suited to the mass market. Known generally as “French” or “Nantes” carrots, they were created decades ago to be harvested by hand and eaten fresh.
I am not, in any way, dissing the amazing agricultural enterprise that produces millions of tons of nutritious and inexpensive carrots and makes them available to shoppers nationwide, every day. It has created a niche market for small farmers like us to produce an artisan product that happily coexists alongside the mainstream offering. And we know that our customers love them — because they tell us all the time.