Everyone who is or has been a Terra Firma subscriber in the last 15 years or so knows Nelson. A team player. Works well with others. Sweet. Tender.
But also crisp and crunchy.
Nelson has been our primary carrot variety for as long as I can remember.
I don’t use the names of many of our vegetable varieties in the newsletter, and for good reason. We are never sure when they are going to disappear, the victim of some seed company executive’s cost-cutting plan. Or maybe of a tornado in the field in Oregon where the seed crop was growing.
This week I got the call: Nelson has been terminated. Retired. Put out to pasture.
Many of our customers have told me that out of all the vegetables Terra Firma grows, the carrots are the most amazing. While I am happy to take some credit for this, in reality the honor belongs mostly to Nelson.
It’s fairly simple to produce sweet and tender carrots in the winter. Frost and rain increase the sugars and reduce the fiber in almost any carrot. But during the hot and dry weather we have here for much of the year, it’s much more difficult. And this was where Nelson shined.
Loosely speaking, Nelson is a type of carrot called “Nantes” or more generally, “French carrot”. This type has little or no tough core at its center, and is brittle, meaning it breaks easily during harvest. It’s also what makes it so tasty. For this reason it is grown almost exclusively by small growers like us, for fresh market. It can only be harvested by hand, and even then, carefully.
The majority of carrots grown in the world are so-called “Imperators”. They are much longer than French carrots, with long, tough tops and roots that don’t break when they are harvested by machine. These are the carrots that are processed into various shapes and sizes, including the falsely named “Baby Carrots”, and sold in bags in the supermarket.
Nelson is not an heirloom variety. It’s a hybrid, a patented cross between other carrot varieties. And so unless the company that owns the patent — a French seedhouse called Bejo — decides to license the patent to someone else, it will disappear from the earth.
Just because Nelson was a joy to eat does not mean it was perfect. Among other problems with it, the seed was always tiny, requiring modified equipment to plant. And the above-ground part of the plant, the leaves, were spindly and weak compared to other carrot varieties. It competed poorly with weeds in our fields. And apparently, it was also a weak producer of seed — which is why the company mothballed it.
If all we grew at Terra Firma were Nelson carrots, I would try to initiate an Internet campaign: “Save Nelson! The tastiest carrot in the world”. Instead, I will be busy trying to find another carrot that will come close to being as tender and sweet in the heat.
In the meantime, we are still harvesting Nelsons. Plus, we have two more plantings in the ground that won’t mature until later in the spring. And I have secured one last batch of seed to plant for Fall 2016. So you have a nice long while to enjoy them while they last.