My partner works in a popular organic grocery store in Melbourne, where shopping baskets are filled with fermented foods, nutty rye breads, Bircher muesli and pungent cheeses. But this food wasn’t always seen to be appealing or as accessible in Australia.Growing up in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, it wasn’t that the area was white bred as such, but the lunchboxes seemed to be. While my classmates tucked into their white bread, I was unwrapping sandwiches so dense they weighed down my school bag – hefty slices of pumpernickel bread filled with salami, cheese and butter. It was what was to be expected of the child of Swiss and Austrian immigrants, but that didn’t mean it was seen as any less weird.
Pulling a carrot out of the ground can spark many emotions – hope, excitement, pride and perhaps even dismay (if you end up with a gnarled and broken one). What draws growers to try their hand at carrots is the nutritional profile and universal appeal of this root vegetable. Highly versatile, you can mash, purée, boil, roast, fry, steam, stew, pulp or juice carrots, or simply eat them raw.
Carrots are packed full of nutrients, including Vitamins A, K1 and B6, biotin and potassium. Rich in beta carotene, which is converted into Vitamin A, this nutrient is said to improve eyesight. You may have been falsely led to believe that eating carrots would give you night vision – one of the oldest parenting tricks in the book to get you to eat more vegetables!
Carrots are most commonly grown in Australia in autumn, winter and spring. In Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, Bauer’s Organic Farm grow carrots from mid-year to November. An organic farm since 1985, Bauer’s has land in Mount Sylvia (where Bauer ancestors farmed way back in 1885) and Upper Tenthill, together forming 340 acres of land.
Farmer Rob Bauer has been growing organic carrots for close to twenty years. Using machinery – a picker, washer and precision planter – Bauer’s grow about 20 acres of carrots a year.
Carrot seeds are so small that it’s estimated that 2000 seeds can fit in a teaspoon. This is one aspect of growing carrots that can make it tricky for the home gardener. “It’s a very tiny seed and it can be hard to get it to germinate as it has to go in very shallow and have accurate depth and accurate width,” says Bauer. “If you put two seeds close together, they wind around each other or they struggle for space so they’ll be smaller.”
“People ask me why the carrots they grew were crooked or forked,” he says. “If they get damaged by an insect or a garden hoe when they are growing, that makes them forked or crooked. If they are planted too close together they can twist around each other or be skinny, and if they are too far apart they’ll grow too big.”
Even the pros don’t get picture perfect carrots every time. “We still get some crooked carrots, ones which are too small and ones which are too big,” says Bauer. “The broken carrots and the crooked ones we can sell as juicing carrots – we don’t throw them away.”
As a taproot, carrots grow directly downward. As such, soil quality is incredibly important – for carrots to thrive it needs to be somewhat loose (not compacted), sandy and free of coarse material.
Carrots can still be grown by hand, which is what Wayne Shields of Peninsula Fresh Organics is doing. Carrots only make up a small amount of the produce he grows, with his focus on bunching carrots. “It came down to how much land we had,” says Shields. “I get a lot more value out of smaller plantings and hand picking a lot of my crops.”
He grows carrots year-round at Peninsula Fresh Organics’ farms (40 acres in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, and 100 acres in Barham, NSW). “When they get cold they produce a bit of sugar, in case the ground freezes as that helps them survive the frost, which is why you can get sweeter carrots in colder climates,” he says.
Once a conventional farmer, Shields now grows carrots organically. “If I had to choose which to eat I’d pick the organic one,” he says. “The organic carrots tend to grow a bit slower and they get more flavour that way.”
While different coloured carrots are sparking interest these days, they’re nothing new. Purple carrots were brought over to Western Europe from the Middle East in the Middle Ages, and then evolved into orange carrots thanks to 17th century Dutch growers.
In 2019, Bauer’s Organic Farm worked with Professor Lindsay Brown from the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) to uncover the health benefits of purple produce. USQ research found that eating purple carrots and Queen Garnet plums resulted in weight loss, improved liver function and a return to normal blood pressure.
This has further generated an interest into purple ‘superfoods’, although Bauer notes that orange carrots haven’t been overtaken in popularity yet by their trendier purple counterparts. “With anything new, Australians take quite a while to work up the courage to try it,” he says. Selling purple carrots since last year, they now make up a fifth of the carrot varieties Bauer’s Organic Farm grows.
Can you expect the same taste from a purple carrot to an orange one? “No, purple carrots have a slightly different taste,” says Bauer. “I’m used to the taste of the orange carrots and prefer those, but the purple ones are good too.”
Peninsula Fresh Organics grow a rainbow variety of carrots – purple, white, yellow “and every shade in between,” says Shields. “The sweetness and the texture changes depending on the variety, but sometimes that’s to do with the time of the year they’re grown in as well,” he says.
“They look fantastic, which helps as some people eat with their eyes a fair bit,” he adds. “They’re still not as popular as the orange carrots but they certainly are a talking point when we’re selling direct to the public.”
“Don’t just throw carrots in the veggie crisper loose – put them in a Tupperware container or wrap them in a plastic bag,” advises Bauer. “That will keep the air away from them and you’ll have nice fresh carrots in the fridge for months.”
“Take the tops off the carrots because the tops continue to grow, trying to draw moisture up through the carrot root,” he says. “It’s like sitting a flower in a vase without any water. Like a flower, the carrot leaves are sucking the moisture up and then the root can’t get any moisture from its surrounding environment.”
What to do with carrot tops
Once you’ve removed the carrot tops, you don’t have to throw them straight into the compost. They are edible, so here are some ways to try them:
- Make pesto, hummus or salsa
- Use in salads and coleslaw
- Add to stocks and soups
- Throw them in the juicer along with the carrots
First published in EatWell magazine, issue 31 2020.