Carrots. Crunchy, convenient and nutritious, the carrot is a dietary staple in the United States. According to the UDSA, carrots are the fifth most consumed vegetable in the country; the average American consumed 9.5 pounds of carrots in 2003. Chances are, at least 7.2 pounds of those carrots came from California, now home (or rather, birthplace) to 76 percent of the country’s fresh market carrots.
Bred to be mechanically harvested, travel well, and store for long periods, the average carrot travels 1774 miles to the dinner plate. It’s no wonder that “flavorful” is a word rarely associated with this woody root crop. “Average” is more like it.
That’s why when I first heard about Gary Guthrie’s “utterly delicious” carrots in Ames, Iowa, I wanted to learn more. Through careful attention to variety selection and taste, Guthrie has put the flavor back into carrots. He’s also created a profitable niche that extends his growing season and boosts farm revenue.
Growing Harmony Farm
Guthrie farms with his wife, Nancy, and son, Eric, on Growing Harmony farm, five miles east of Ames in central Iowa. A native of the state, Guthrie spent a number of years in community development in both Central America (with MCC, the Mennonite Central Committee) and Des Moines before returning to his family’s farm in 1997.
Guthrie wanted to get back into agriculture, but didn’t know how until he attended a winter workshop at Iowa State University on a concept called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The model, in which the community shares the rewards and risks of a farm’s harvest, resonated with him. “It seemed like an opportunity to integrate my interests in research, community development, and my people skills.”
The following spring Guthrie launched his CSA with four members. Today he raises organic vegetables for 44 CSA members on 2.5 acres of land. Looking for a way to supplement his CSA income and distribute his labor in the slower months, Guthrie turned to carrots, a fall crop with good storage capabilities. His efforts have paid off.
Carrot flavor secrets
Guthrie was first turned on to flavorful carrots almost by accident. One wintry day in December 1997, Guthrie pulled some carrots out of a snow-covered bed he had planted earlier in the season. The carrots, a variety called Bolero, were exceptional. Says Guthrie, “It was my first realization of how good winter carrots could be.”
The following summer, Guthrie read an article titled “Carrot Flavor Secrets” in Organic Gardening magazine. The piece explained the physiology of carrot flavor and shared the results of a taste test comparing seven different carrot hybrids grown in upper North America. Guthrie, who still considers it the best article he’s seen on carrot production, said, “It confirmed what I already knew.”
According to the article, “A flavorful carrot variety will probably taste flavorful no matter where it is grown.” In other words, variety selection, more than anything else, is the key to tasty carrots. Guthrie, who was already growing several of the recommended varieties, felt encouraged to grow more.
As the CSA grew, Guthrie continued to raise and experiment with carrots. Soon, he realized he was starting to get a reputation. “I’d go to these conferences and people would say ‘Gary Guthrie’s carrots are the best I’ve ever eaten.’ That’s when I decided to focus more on carrot production.”
A recipe for carrot success
After years of research and experimentation, Guthrie’s developed his own recipe for successful carrot production. As already noted, variety selection is a crucial factor (see caption below for Guthrie’s variety recommendations). Others include soil management, bed preparation and weed control.
“It starts with nice loose organic soils," says Guthrie. Fortunate to farm on Iowa’s famously fertile, black prairie soils, Guthrie still makes every effort to conserve and enhance his soils with green manures, cover crops and long rotations. As an organic farmer, he uses no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Aside from the rototiller and propane flamer, Guthrie farms entirely by hand—something he considers better for the soil (and is committed to as an act of solidarity with the majority of world’s farmers).
Too much nitrogen will cause a carrot to develop forks, so Guthrie typically plants carrots as the last crop in his rotation. One to two weeks prior to planting he creates raised beds 3 ft wide by 20 ft long. He direct-seeds the carrots, four or five rows per bed, using a thin carrot plate on his Earthway seeder so the plants won’t have to be thinned later. After seeding, he covers the beds with 40-inch wide untreated burlap to maintain moisture for better germination. During hotter months, Guthrie sometimes uses two layers of burlap to keep the beds from drying out.
A hand-held propane flamer is Guthrie's main method of weed control. One or two days prior to carrot emergence he scorches the bed completely. “You need to see the weeds dry up and blow away for the most effective weed control,” he declares. Once the carrots emerge, he does some light weeding as necessary. Guthrie has found that flaming for weed control, along with increasing the number of rows per bed, has almost doubled his carrot yields.
Carrots that sell themselves
In 2003 Guthrie raised 3,400 pounds of carrots on 22 beds. Even though he stepped up production considerably, from 2,400 pounds in 2002, he still sold out by the end of November. At $1.00 per pound retail or $0.70 wholesale, the carrots have added nicely to the farm’s revenue.
Guthrie’s farm is close to a college town, which makes it ideally situated for direct marketing. Besides his CSA members, Gary sells carrots straight off the farm, to the nearby food cooperative, and to several restaurants in Ames and in Grinnell (another college town about 90 minutes away). When available, his carrots are also a regular feature at the growing number of conferences serving “All-Iowa” meals.
Kamal Hammouda, owner and chef of the Phoenix Café in Grinnell, has served Growing Harmony Farm’s carrots for years. “Their very distinct sweetness makes them different from your run-of-the-mill carrots,” Hammouda says. Though Hammouda could buy carrots from farmers closer to his restaurant, he finds the extra effort is worth it. “I serve them fresh, in soups, and in cakes," he explains. "When I find something good I keep bringing it back.”
Turns out, Hammouda’s customers expect that of him too. “This year I was a little late picking up Gary’s carrots and soon some of my regular customers started to ask for them.”
Guthrie’s emphasis on flavor also helps keep his CSA members coming back. Corry Bregendahl and her husband, Kristjan, have been members of Growing Harmony Farm since 1999. “Gary’s produce is fantastic,” raves Bregendahl. And the carrots? “Sweet, crunchy, and delicious—I practically lived on them one winter.”
“Sweet, crunchy, and delicious—I practically lived on them one winter.”
As for next season, Guthrie says he plans to maintain current production levels, since “thirty-four hundred pounds is plenty to market.” He will, however, continue to try to improve his germination and production rates per bed-foot. He also likes to educate customers about carrot taste.
At his annual apple pie CSA-member appreciation night this year, Guthrie started off the evening with a tasting of Napoli and Bolero carrots. Says Guthrie, “One doesn’t normally think of carrots as having distinguishing tastes, like apples. Yet, my members, without knowing which was which, could highlight the differences.” (Almost all said they preferred Bolero.)
Does Guthrie recommend that other farmers consider carrots to extend their growing seasons? Yes. He’s heard plenty of comments from other farmers that carrots are “too much work,” and that's why he has such a market. Still, he sees great potential. “I agree they're a lot of work, but there's tremendous opportunity and plenty of market for these types of carrots in the northern United States.”
Having tasted Growing Harmony Farm carrots, we can only hope more farmers follow Guthrie’s lead.
Gary Guthrie frequently shares his carrot expertise at conferences and field days. To learn more about his carrot operation or to receive a copy of his “Steps to Successful Carrot Production,” contact Gary at: firstname.lastname@example.org.