Why so many all at once? A combination of things, really. The carrots, although sweeter due to recent cold temperatures, were really starting to get damaged from wire worm and carrot root maggot (yum). It’s one thing to throw out a small carrot too riddled with holes to sell but quite another to see a large one with the same problem. Best to sell what we could before they all got damaged.
The carrots seemed to be doing pretty well a few weeks ago; small but relatively undamaged. But our September got Saskatchewaned with probably one third more rain than the previous record. Maybe the rainfall (or lack of sun) promoted the pests. The low tunnel over the carrots was covered in reemay, which lets in rain and some air (but keeps out insects like the carrot rust fly) and is usually a good thing. After we got so much rain in the first two weeks of September, I replaced the reemay with polyethylene. But poly doesn’t breathe and I noticed that the carrot foliage was starting to rot in places. A contributing factor to that was that the foliage was drooping over on its side. And the reason for that, I assume, was how close I planted them.
Way back in mid-July I started playing with my fancy precision seeder and, while I knew too dense would be a problem for some things, I remembered that Ray from Haliburton planted his carrots very close together so I did the same. Now I see some key differences. First, Ray used a lot of composted horse manure in his beds; all his stuff grew fast and strong and would be a worthy foe for any insect. Second, his carrots were in a high tunnel (poor man’s greenhouse) with significantly more air flow, even with doors closed sometimes. Third, I don’t think he planted them at max density; I probably planted twice as many just by using the inside sheaves on the seeder instead of the middles. Finally, I was probably remembering his early carrots, not the winter ones. A bed of carrots with copious foliage in the relative dry of summer would be much less susceptible to the cool, humid rotting conditions we experienced in September this year (but October in any other year).
While in Natureworks on Tuesday, I noticed that they had a fellow farmer’s bulk carrots for sale. I spoke with produce guy Aaron and co-owner Craig about my carrot situation and they agreed to take them off my hands. Coincidentally, our bunched carrots were already in their display case but the bunching process, I thought, was uneconomical. It turns out that a lot of people simply prefer to have tops with their carrots even though the tops always get thrown out (to the compost pile in the best case) after they have sucked a little more nutrition, water and flavour from the edible root. But preserving the tops was very time consuming in our beds because the tops, which were far too dense, got tangled up amongst each other; pulling one carrot out often meant stripping some of that foliage off. It just seemed like it was way too labour-intensive to be profitable. If instead we could lift the whole bed of carrots at once, we would be more efficient, even considering that the resulting product yielded less money per pound and fewer pounds. We could have continued to sell carrots with greens 25 or 30 lbs per week but only by leaving them in the ground until they were needed, all the while a higher and higher percentage becoming unsellable. Or we could lift the whole works, get what we could, and more on.
While I had the lawnmower out on Wednesday, tidying up before the grass got too long and the rains too frequent, I made 4 passes over the 6′ width of the double carrot beds. Just like that, most of the foliage was cut down to mulch. After raking it away to the compost pile, I got out the walk-behind tractor and attached the root digger implement. The root digger gets dragged behind the tractor and digs in underneath the carrots (or potatoes, beets etc) and lifts the soil up behind it, where a fan of tines lets the soil pass through before dropping the crop on top. In theory.
In practice, the soil was a little too moist so it didn’t drop through the tines very well so that carrots got lifted but then mostly hidden. Because the bed-width was 30” and the root digger about 15”, some of the carrots on the outside edge got sliced. And the tractor is hard to keep in a straight line on uneven terrain so there were sections that were well-lifted and sections that weren’t lifted at all. I made several passes and then went through on my hands and knees (with truant Hannah) and picked out carrots and, surprise, yet more stones. Then, with the soil nice and loose, I got out a digging fork and gently probed for more. And more. And more. Probably 120 lbs all told.
Then came the tedious sorting job. Then figuring what the hell to do with all the duds. I spent a lot of yesterday using the food processor to cut the larger duds into coins, which I then blanched and froze. I steamed, pureed and froze the very small carrots and the off cuts. I still have 20+ lbs to do. I’ve offered puree and coins to one of the parents at Laura’s school, for use in the soup hot lunch. Here’s hoping. Maybe the local soup kitchen can take them unprocessed. I’ll have to check.
Today I delivered 69 lbs of pretty decent smallish carrots with no tops. Craig will probably sell them for $3/lb; I’m hoping to get $1.75.
For next year, I will:
1. Seed them less dense. For the spring planting, I’ll seed at less than half of the previous density by going 2.5” spacing in-row and 2.25” between rows. For the summer planting, I’ll probably go 2.5” in-row and 4.5” between rows.
2. Plant the winter carrots no later than the end of June. It was mid-July when I planted them this year. As a result, there wasn’t enough time for them to reach their full length. It couldn’t be helped this year but next year will be different.
3. Be prepared to install a polyethylene cover before the fall rains come, even if they start coming in late summer.
4. Make sure the bed has a lot of nutrition. I suspect our first crop wasn’t getting all the nitrogen it wanted. I assumed a grass field left undisturbed for so long would feed any crop well. I guess not, at least not at the density I had them planted at.
5. Instead of 2X30” beds separated by a 12” walkway a la Eliot Coleman, I’ll go with a custom “root” layout: 3X15” beds separated by 2X7.5” “wheel-ways”. In this configuration, I hope to be able to straddle the bed with the tractor wheels in the wheel-ways while being able to lift the whole 15” mini-bed with the 15” root digger. I’ll also do this with beets and potatoes and perhaps radishes and turnips. The downside is a 25% loss of crop.
6. Harvest root crops by the bed-lift process rather than by individual plants. I’m hoping the relationships we’ve been developing with our customers will mean that we can increase our sales enough to warrant the regular use of the tractor/root-digger.
Next post I want to go through a financial exercise on the carrot crop, using the profitability worksheet developed by Richard Wiswall whose book I bought earlier this year. I plan to do this with all crops since cutting out the losers and going all-in with the winners is what will make this more enjoyable and financially sustainable.