Carrots are one of our staple crops at Terra Firma, and have been one of the most consistently popular items in our CSA boxes for years. The handful of restaurants that we sell our produce to have always loved our carrots. But apparently, carrots are now trendy with chefs across the country, who are putting them in the spotlight on their menus, giving them a role previously reserved for meat or fish. Or at least so says the New York Times.
Carrot consumption has skyrocketed in the U.S. in the last fifteen years or so, probably mostly due to the fact that they are the vegetable most similar to candy (well, good ones are) while having thousands of times more nutritional value. While carrots are grown in several regions across the country, the main area is about three hours south of us, around Bakersfield. But due to the demand, the carrot growing region of California is expanding further north every year.
Carrots are not easy to grow. They may actually be the most difficult crop we farm. Their seeds are tiny and produce weak seedlings that are vulnerable to wind and hot weather for over a month. They require almost daily irrigation during this period. They also compete poorly with weeds, which flourish thanks to all that water. And because they are planted very densely — just an inch apart — they must be painstakingly handweeded at exactly the right time. If you wait a week too long to do this, the tiny plants vanish under the much more vigorous weeds.
Once the plants are 6 inches tall, they pretty much take care of themselves. The pests and diseases they are susceptible to can mostly be avoided by ensuring that you don’t plant them in the same spot too often — crop rotation. And while they can take forever to reach maturity — as long as 6 months in the winter — they produce an incredible amount of food. At Terra Firma, one bed (1/36 acre) will produce as much 5000 bunches of carrots.
On the downside, we harvest all our carrots by hand using a pitchfork — most of them out of the mud during the wet winter. We have to remove most of that mud by hand in the field before washing the carrots, or we would never get it off. It can easily take one person an hour to harvest 20 bunches of carrots. The big carrot growers use machines that can harvest that many carrots in a few seconds.
And that is where one of the big differences comes in. We grow hybrid French carrots that are brittle, tender, juicy — and which cannot be harvested with a machine. Supermarket carrots are very sweet (sometimes), but they are tough enough to be pulled out of the ground at 15 mph., run over several conveyor belts, and dropped into a semi-trailer with several tons of other carrots without breaking.
Carrots also have a season. They taste best during cool, wet weather. While they may still be sweet during hot weather, they will be less tender and have a stronger flavor. We take the hottest months of the summer off from harvesting carrots, although some years we have enough to put some into cold storage before the heat arrives and send them to you later. These are never our best carrots, but they are usually still better than supermarket ones.
Terra Firma subscribers have always known that there are two different types of carrots in the world. But apparently chefs are just figuring it out. And they are realizing that carrots like ours deserve a central place on the menu, not just an ornamental role on the side, steamed or boiled.
Whatever the trend, we have been growing the same amount of carrots at Terra Firma for over ten years — about 3 acres annually in 10 different plantings. They simply take too much labor to grow for us to want to produce any more of them. We always want to be sure we have enough for you, our subscribers, so we plant a little extra. Because you never know when the heat or wind is going to wilt part, or a whole field, of seedlings. So sometimes we have a few to sell to the chefs. But if they want to get them every week, well, they have to sign up for the CSA.