The carrot business is all about consistent quality. Provide a predictable, high-quality product and you’ll never have to worry about a market. Getting to that sweet spot, however, demands a combination of factors, including proper seed, proper handling and a location that allows some forgiveness should Mother Nature turn against you.
That is the reason that the San Joaquin Valley in Central California is home to about 90 percent of the carrot production in the country.
Today, Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield is California’s and the nation’s biggest carrot grower. They produce upwards of 35,000 acres of carrots annually.
“We are in an area that is perfect for carrots,” Steve Roodzant, vice president of marketing for Grimmway Farms, said. “It’s not just us…there are other players in the area.”
Indeed, Grimmway and its neighbors benefit from great geography. Grimmway also benefits from several opportunities that the owners took to expand at the right times. Plus, they assure that the customer is No. 1.
“When you do that, opportunities follow. Our success comes from providing consistent quality, consistent supply and meeting delivery times,” Roodzant said. “We’ve had no shortages, no outages (of supply).”
There are two carrot growing seasons – spring and fall. Grimmway produces both full-length carrots, which the industry terms “cello,” and “baby” carrots. Cello carrots are so-called because they typically are marketed in cellophane bags. Baby carrots are not a specific variety bred to be the midgets of the carrot industry but are, rather, the product of cutting regular carrots into 2-inch segments.
In both cases, variety choice is of paramount importance.
“We do variety development in house, mostly with private, third-party seed companies who do the breeding,” John Guerard, general manager of grower relations and services at Grimmway, said. Grimmway’s work with commercial breeders on the development of new carrot varieties gives them first shot at the improved lines.
Not only do they look for varieties that grow well and are resistant to diseases and other pests but they evaluate for taste and sweetness.
“Flavor is huge,” Guerard said. “We are excited about what we are seeing from the seed companies that are breeding for us.”
Carrots grown from seed in Central California typically mature in 110 to 150 or 160 days depending on whether they are spring or fall carrots (see article on page 6); 120 to 150 days is common. The fall crop requires a longer time window, because germination takes longer and growing is slower due to fewer growing degree days.
Finding the proper variety – especially for baby carrot success – is a challenge, one that Grimmway’s Guerard deals with regularly.
“We work with the seed companies out in the field trialing the new varieties. We get to see them the first year they are able to provide seed from the new crosses,” Guerard said.
Much work has been done by the baby carrot industry on finding varieties that offer consistency of presentation and enhanced flavor profile.
“I’m pretty excited about some of the new lines down the pike,” Guerard said. As he’s responsible for agronomy at Grimmway, he knows the value of the right seed. He also is aware that it takes about seven years to develop a new carrot line from its first cross to having sufficient seed to grow it out on a commercial basis.
USDA-ARS has a geneticist that helps the industry by developing disease- or nematode-resistant gene lines that they provide to the seed company.
Currently, Guerard is looking for a carrot with a smaller diameter that is longer than the carrots a producer might have wanted 10 or 20 years ago. Then, the focus was on cellos with more of a tapered look.
While length was important, the market has changed. Baby carrots are all the rage – from ritzy parties to airline food service. Plantings today for babies are twice what they are for cellos.
“We want them pretty thick with a smaller diameter …more of complete fill, tube-looking carrot,” Guerard said. That way, when they bring the baby carrot in from the field, it already is closer to what the consumer wants, giving Grimmway a maximum of 2-inch cuts with minimal peeling.
When breeding, everyone is wary of problems. For instance, a great, sweet variety that is prone to problems like air cracking when it is exposed to cold temperatures.
Stubbing can be caused by soil-borne organisms like a pythium fungus or a nematode or insect damage. “Those things don’t have a bearing on the sweetness or texture of a carrot,” Guerard said. So it is possible to breed for resistance without losing flavor. There is enough variety within the breeding stock of carrots that breeders can have their sweetness and pest resistance, too.
There has been success breeding for resistance to some problems, like Alternaria leaf blight and powdery mildew fungus.
“We’ve come a long way with the new varieties in breeding disease resistance, getting higher beta-carotene content for nutrition, flavor and texture,” he said.
The perfect variety, he said, would have “all of the above” qualities. Reality says growers never will have total resistance to disease.
“The holy grail would be a variety with good disease tolerance, consistently sweet and with good texture all the time. That’s hard,” he said.
Because carrots are grown in different microclimates at different times of year there are different management schemes and different crop outcomes. That has an effect on sugar content and on other areas. Despite the carrot’s being prone to variation, the goal at Grimmway is to be as consistent as possible.
The same varieties are planted both for spring and for fall carrots at Grimmway. “We may have a big of a different strategy for how we water or fertilize them,” Guerard said.
They will pigeonhole varieties for fresh-market cellos and for processing. Carrots are purpose-grown depending on the market. Big chunks or other abnormal carrots are removed on the line and used for juice or other processed products. That situation is minimized by good agronomics.
Carrots at Grimmway generally are produced on raised beds although Grimmway has experimented with other bed types.
The first step is to do a deep soil ripping or chisel plowing, going as deep as they can. They want to go down to 26 to 30 inches. “We want to be sure the soil is very loose so the carrots can grow long and straight. We don’t want any compaction in the soil,” Guerard said.
Going into planting, that soil is disked to provide a seedbed.
Since Grimmway produces for the organic and the non-organic market, there are differences in fertility programs. Organic plots get compost. Other fields get commercial fertilizer. The latter may also be fumigated for nematodes based on the results of soil analysis. Organic fields never are fumigated.
Next they lift the beds into mounds. The planter shapes the bed, squares it off, and plants the seed atop the bed. When the job is finished, the field goes from having a rounded mound with furrows to a bed with furrows.
Then they bring out the sprinkler irrigation system. The system stays in place throughout the season and is used for irrigation and fertigation.
Potassium and nitrogen are the key nutrients in a carrot field. Potassium is keyed to expected yield and is applied pre-plant.
They put very little nitrogen on at planting. Rather, it goes on through the sprinkler system. “We spoon feed through the season since nitrogen is readily leached through the soil where potassium is not,” Guerard said.
The organic fields get most of their potassium and phosphorus from composted dairy or chicken manure. Grimmway will supplement that with a side-dress of fish emulsions or chicken pellets to get needed nitrogen into the soil.
“It’s more difficult with organic than the conventional,” he said. The return is with a higher market price.
Most carrots produced at Grimmway are for the fresh market.
Optical sorting machines are used to grade the cello carrots as they come down the line. Roodzant said there also are human sorters who serve as a backstop to be sure the product that makes it to the bagging section is quality. Next, the carrots are chilled. Then they are packaged in bags, cased, palletized and shipped by the pallet to market.
Baby carrots are washed as they come out of the field. Next they are cut and then tumbled.
“We tumble in an abrasion-type process,” Guerard said. As the carrots tumble, they brush up against turning abrasion rollers that are turning inside the turning drum. The rollers are coated with carborundum, which acts like a very fine-grit sandpaper. The tumbling takes a little bit of the skin off and rounds the edges of the baby carrot.
It is an urban legend that baby carrots are formed by taking a big cello carrot and cutting it down to nubbins.
Through tumbling, carrots are washed with clean water. As the carrots go into the tumbler they look like little slugs. By the end of the process they look natural and are quite pleasing to the eye and the tongue.
Herein lies one of the major rubs to a producer looking to become a major factor in the baby carrot market. The handling equipment does not come cheap. “There’s a capital-intensive process that comes with making a baby carrot. The economics don’t lend themselves to regional operation like they do here in California where we can bring carrots to the facility year-round,” Roodzant said.
The way to amortize any farm equipment is to run as much product through the processor or across the grading line, through the chiller and into the packing area as possible. For an individual farmer to do that requires a consistent supply of raw material, optimally year-round.
In areas with one crop a year, the machinery necessarily gets half the use that the Californians can give theirs since they have the ability to harvest a spring and a fall crop. Operations with a one-season business rather than year-round processing have an economic disadvantage.
Thus, key to Grimmway’s success is its ability – and the ability of neighboring carrot operations – to turn out two crops each year. Another is to do it well.
“One of the recipes to our success is that we’ve been extremely consistent,” Roodzant said.
Some of that is due to ownership wisdom and some is due to climate. “We don’t deal with a lot of weather calamities that knock out production such as you might find in the Midwest,” Roodzant said.
Couple that with the availability of multiple positive, efficacious microclimates up and down the Valley – most located in a circle less than 100 miles in diameter – and it is obvious that Mother Nature smiles on that area of California for production. These microclimates allow Grimmway flexibility to move production to another area should heavy rains, for example, mud out one farm.
Guerard said that a producer with experience growing vegetables is better placed to get in to carrot production than one with a background in, say, cotton or alfalfa.
“They understand better how important it is to get early weed control, water the carrots and fertilize them properly,” Guerard said.
That is not to say that carrot production cannot be successful in areas from as far north as Michigan to as far south as Georgia. However, Grimmway’s home turf is some of the most forgiving in the nation.
“Other growing regions can grow a great carrot,” Roodzant said. “But there aren’t other regions that can grow two crops a year.”
Grimmway’s business started small with a farm stand in Anaheim in 1968. Rod and Bob Grimm set up their roadside produce stand little dreaming that the operation one day would become the largest carrot-producing business in the United States. While it remains a family business, this is no mom-and-pop operation but a start-to-finish operation.
After 10 years, the brothers relocated to Kern County, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Today, they ship across North America, including Canada.
That success provides a solid backdrop to Roodzant’s analysis of Grimmway’s position in the market. “We’re trying to make carrots as consistent, as sweet and as delightful—day-in-and-day-out—as we can,” he said.