If you’ve been wondering “Where are the Carrots?” in your boxes, today is your lucky day.
Carrots have always been one of our signature crops at Terra Firma. While they are a staple vegetable for most people, anyone who’s ever tasted ours knows that TFF carrots are not just a staple: they are special.
For decades, we have been growing French carrot varieties generally called “Nantes”. This type of carrot has no chewy core, and has a brittle texture that most people enjoy eating better than the industrial carrots sold in most supermarkets. While you may experience our carrots as “sweeter” than the standard ones, they also have a higher water content — more juice.
Growing carrots is not easy anywhere. They must be planted from seed, yet the seeds are slow to sprout and the seedlings weak and spindly. During this growth stage, they are highly susceptible to drying out in the heat or wind, and require frequent light irrigation. But in order to control weeds, the field must be dry. All this makes timing of irrigation and weed control critical.
Carrots are also labor intensive, as the tiny seedlings must be carefully weeded by hand. Hand harvesting is incredibly time consuming as well, which is why the majority of carrots grown in the U.S. are harvested mechanically.
Top-lifters, as they are known, undercut the carrot roots while simultaneously grabbing their leaves between two moving belts that lightly shake them to knock off any remaining soil. The belts then transport the carrots upwards into an array of spinning blades that removes the tops and drops the roots onto a second belt. From there they are transferred into a box or bin. This video is not from our farm, but the machine is very similar to ours.
Toplifters have existed since the 1950s, but the only ones currently made in the U.S. are enormous machines costing upwards of half a million dollars. Several European companies make more affordable, smaller scale versions, but they don’t sell them in the U.S. While just about everyone growing carrots in France or Germany uses them, they are rare and hard to find in the U.S. And shipping a used one from Europe is difficult and expensive.
For three decades, we dug carrots by hand with assistance from a tractor used to undercut and loosen the carrots. But in 2020, we finally found a farmer in West Virginia selling a small-scale harvester.
It took several months to arrange shipping of the machine — which is not all that small, really. Then it took us almost six months more to adapt the harvester to our specifications. And the first time we used it, we realized we needed to actually change the way we grew the carrots completely. We finally began using it regularly in the spring of this year.
We used to have a dozen people working for dozens of hours a week harvesting carrots. Now two people can harvest the same amount of carrots in a day. It is a real game-changer our farm, given that we grow carrots for most of the year.
One thing has not changed though. There have always been subtle differences between the carrots we harvest during the hot summer months and the winter, when cold temperatures concentrate the sugar and make the carrots extra crisp. But in any given month of the year, Terra Firma carrots still taste like Terra Firma carrots.