Extending the Growing Season through Root Crops

Evaluating 31 types of carrots, 18 beets, and 7 parsnips for yield, appearance, color, taste, and storage ability.

Extending the Growing Season through Root Crops

Extending the Growing Season through Root Crops

The ability to sell product year-round can be critical to the health of a farm enterprise. But with a growing season that ends in the fall, the Northeast offers few opportunities for vegetable farmers to generate income from agriculture over the winter months. In fact, despite being occupied with maintenance on the farm and getting ready for spring, many farm owners rely on outside employment to carry them through the off season. Among the most promising solutions being explored for growers looking to extend the season are root crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips. Because they store well and can be sold long after harvest time, these vegetables can be of considerable value to Hudson Valley farmers.

“More and more growers are storing root crops and selling them through the winter to provide a steady income throughout the year,” explains Crystal Stewart of Cornell Cooperative Extension Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program (CCE ENYCHP), who organized a root crops variety trial at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub this season. “Root crops can help Hudson Valley growers stay profitable through the winter, cushioning the margins over more popular but often less profitable leafy greens.”

For locally minded consumers, finding Hudson Valley root vegetables off-season can be a challenge. “More than 80% of the carrots in this country are grown in California,” Farm Hub Associate Director Jean-Paul Courtens explained recently. “Carrots are grown here in the Hudson Valley from the middle of July to around Thanksgiving, and then they disappear again.”

As part of the CCE ENYCHP variety trial, thirty-one types of carrots, eighteen beets, and seven parsnips were evaluated for yield, appearance, color, taste, and storage ability. Through the coming winter, carrots and beets harvested and kept in ideal conditions will be tested on a monthly basis for taste and Brix levels (a measure of sugar content). Beets will be stored at Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, NY. The carrots and parsnips will be stored at the Carrot Barn in Schoharie County.

Preliminary results of the first part of the trial were presented at a twilight meeting at the Farm Hub on September 29. In addition to Stewart and Courtens who introduced the trial and methodology, Sarah Pethybridge of Cornell University spoke about foliar diseases of table beets and Lisa Ward of Sakata Seeds presented the different types of beets that were used in the trial. Over 40 growers participated in the event, including Dutchess County farmer Ken Migliorelli, who shared his approach to the challenge of getting parsnips to germinate.

The first half of the evening was spent touring the plots and hearing results from the trial. “What surprised us were the incredible differences between the varieties,” Courtens told farmers. This was particularly true when it came to quantifying “marketable roots,” in other words, estimating how many of the carrots harvested would be sellable. A key factor for consumers purchasing root vegetables is appearance, and even a minor deviation in form can make a carrot useless no matter its taste or size. “When a carrot looks funny,” Courtens explained, “people don’t buy it.

“I graded the carrots for fresh market, not for wholesale,” Stewart told the assembled farmers. “So we were allowing some deviation to go through, I was being really generous which tells you that some of these carrots were just not viable.”

Among the more promising carrot varieties, Envy, a multipurpose hybrid, produced the greatest yield per acre, with 28,460 lbs. of carrots per acre. Several other carrots, including Carson, Goldfinger, Juliana, Magnum, Navarino, Nelson, Romance, and Vitana, brought in over 70% marketable roots, while three (Scarlett Nantes, Nevis, and Coreless Amsterdam) had under 50% marketable roots.

The carrot trial also included an informal comparison between carrots grown on level ground as opposed to ridges. “Carrots in the Hudson Valley are usually grown on flat ground or in raised beds,” Courtens explained. “In California and in Europe, however, they’re grown in ridges.” Carrots grown in ridges are planted in twice as much topsoil as compared with a raised bed. The theory is that carrots grown this way are easier to harvest and to weed, and that by increasing the topsoil available to the carrot the root grows longer and more uniformly. Indeed, in the 2015 trial plots, the carrots planted on flat ground seemed to have lower yields than those planted in ridges. All varieties, however, struggled to break through a hard crust formed on the field after three inches of rain fell in one day just after seeding.

For beets, Rhonda, an F1 variety, had the largest weight of marketable roots and yield per 100’ of row (175.3lbs). Boro, a dark red beet, was a close second with 171.3lbs of beets per 100’ of row. Among yellow beets, Touchstone Gold was the most productive, with 112.3lbs per 100’ of row. Notably, the yellow and white beets in the trial had much nicer tops than the red varieties.

Varieties kept in storage will be sampled regularly throughout the winter for taste and Brix levels to assess their storage quality. The first taste test took place during the September 29th event, with participants gathering in the packing house to sample the carrots before voting for the best tasting varieties.

“What we try to do with a trial like this is give growers an accurate idea of how these crops would perform in the field,” Stewart said. “Growers don’t want to commit to something new until they have seen results, and the good news is that we had some really interesting results coming out of this trial.” Stewart will be sharing those results over the coming months at the New England Vegetable Conference, the Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Conference, and at ENYCHP’s winter meetings.