by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Although a wine and carrot pairing is not immediately obvious, it is intriguing that carrots and wine grapes appreciate the same environmental conditions. In fact, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington’s newest viticultural region, is also home to the bulk of our carrot production, the carrots thriving on the same soil and warm days and cool nights that produce such great wine grapes.
Rob Mercer ’91, president of Mercer Canyons, oversees the production of nearly 2,000 acres of carrots, which represents a good chunk not only of state, but national carrot production. A planting density of a million seeds per acre or more translates to a lot of carrots.
Washington is the largest producer of processed carrots in the country and second only to California in total carrot production. In 2010, Washington produced over 115,000 tons of processing carrots, compared to 30,000 tons produced in California. California, however, produces far more fresh market carrots. Other major carrot-producing states are Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Much of Washington’s, and Mercer Canyons’s, carrot production goes into “baby carrots.” Although some growers still grow actual immature carrots, the baby carrots you buy in a bag and set out with dip are actually full-size carrots chopped and peeled down to a consistent size.
After baby carrots were introduced to the marketplace in the early 1990s, carrot consumption in the United States nearly doubled, says Mercer.
The Mercer family farm started growing fresh market carrots in 1983, building a processing plant soon after, “with the idea that everyone else was doing potatoes and onions.”
Over the next 14 years, Mercer Ranch, as they were then, built a national distribution, providing carrots to Costco, Walmart, and other outlets. They developed an operation in California’s Imperial Valley, where they grew carrots in the winter. Their California processing plant would run through mid-June. The operation would move back to Horse Heaven Hills for the summer, processing carrots sometimes into December.
In the late 1990s, the Mercers traveled to Europe to investigate a method of starting carrots under plastic. The method greatly increases the growing season, enabling them to consolidate their operation in Washington. When I visited the farm in late February, they were getting ready to plant the first crop, though set back a few days by an approaching bitter cold snap.
In 2004, Mercer Ranch sold their carrot processing facilities to a California operation, Bolthouse Farms. Now Mercer Canyons, they still sell Bolthouse the majority of the carrots for Washington processing. Bolthouse is the largest carrot grower in the world.
Jeff Janosky ’96, ’99 MA, director of operations for the Washington and California Bolthouse facilities, as well as operations in Georgia and Ontario, describes the perfect carrot for baby carrot processing. It’s about that long, he says, holding his hands a foot apart, and the circumference of his middle finger.
The biggest challenge of growing carrots, says Mercer, is getting the right size profile, which depends largely on cultural practices before and during growing. Size profile depends on seed density and variety. The ideal carrot field, he says, has all of its carrots an inch apart.
Since the carrots are not thinned, such a field requires extraordinary precision in the planter. On a stroll around the machinery yard, Mercer loosens the canvas covering on a planter being readied for seeding. Carrots seeds are very small, a pound consisting of between 175,000 and 400,000. The planter, which looks like something from the inside of a space shuttle, uses a combination of vacuum and fine brass plates to mete out a seed an inch. The planter is enclosed in canvas to protect the fine seed from wind.
Tim Waters ’02, ’09 PhD, based in the extension office in Pasco, is the carrot specialist for the region. He is also the specialist for all the other vegetables grown in the area, including potatoes and onions. Besides monitoring insect pests (his education is in entomology), fungal diseases, weed problems, and so forth, he is responsible for variety testing for this region.
When I visit, he has just received the protocol for a variety trial for purple carrots he’ll start this spring.
Carrots, which are believed to come from Afghanistan, were originally purple. The familiar orange did not develop until probably the eighteenth century, when orange mutants were selected, it is believed, by growers in the Netherlands.
Although orange dominates the U.S. carrot market, we should see more variation as production diversifies. Red carrots are popular in Japan, says Waters. They have more flavor than ours, but are sharper and more bitter, because of higher levels of anthocyanins. “The more pigment, the more flavor,” says Waters.
Flavor in carrots is not quite so dependent on cultural practices as wine grapes, says Mercer. But southeast Washington’s environment is conducive not only to appearance, but taste. The cool nights of late summer and early fall help keep the sugar levels up. Day length and night time temperatures definitely affect carrot taste, he says. “They really struggle down south to keep the taste from becoming bland.”
Besides carrots, Mercer Canyons grows a wide variety of vegetables: onions, garlic, sweet corn, potatoes, kale, broccoli, squash.
And wine grapes. Mercer Canyons currently has about a thousand acres in vineyards. They grow for Chateau Ste. Michelle as well as their own winery, Mercer Canyons, in Prosser.
For wine tastings, Mercer’s wife Brenda ’90 makes a carrot soup. She suggests a Mercer Canyons chardonnay to accompany it.
Carrot Ginger Soup
2 tablespoons sweet cream butter
2 onions, peeled and chopped
6 cups chicken broth
2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 cup whipping cream
Salt and white pepper
Parsley sprigs, for garnish
DirectionsIn a 6-quart pan, over medium high heat, add butter and onions and cook, stirring often, until onions are limp. Add broth, carrots, and ginger. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until carrots are tender when pierced.
Remove from heat and transfer to a blender. Don’t fill the blender more than half way. Do it in batches if you have to. Be careful when blending hot liquids as the mixture can spurt out of the blender. Pulse the blender to start it and then puree until smooth. Return to the pan and add cream, stir over high heat until hot. For a smoother flavor bring soup to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with sour cream and parsley sprigs.
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