November 5th, 2020
Our red, choiggia, golden and cylinder beets are all harvested, washed and tucked away in our cold storage. At this point we are about 3/4 done our carrot harvest. For crops such as celeriac, leek, kale, Brussels sprouts and parsnip we will watch the weather closely and wait as long as we possibly can before we swoop in and get them safely indoors. It’s a bit of a balancing act. Bring them in too soon and the quality may start to go downhill before we sell them all. Get caught by low temperatures or a low wind chill and the crops may be damaged or outright ruined; on occasion it keeps my stress levels up nicely!
We should finish with fall carrot harvest by the end of this week and will resume harvest the minute the snow is off of them around the first of April. Yes, we leave a couple of acres in the ground over winter with very little or no damage (in theory). When we harvest in the spring the carrots will be every bit as perfect as they are in the fall with one major difference; they will be even sweeter!
The problem of freezing temperature and plants is that water forms sharp ice crystals that puncture cell walls as they expand causing irreparable damage. They literally die of a million cuts! As a defence against this carrots (and many other vegetables) increase their cell sugar content which in turn lowers the freezing point of their “cell sap” and they can withstand lower temperatures without damage. That is why so many veggies are tastier after a frost or two. If you haven’t tried our “supersweet” carrots lately you really need to. During the months of October and November they are jaw droppingly sweet. When we say “supersweet” we mean it!
Back to overwintering carrots. If you were to just leave carrots in the field for the winter you would have little orange mush sticks…..pretty hard to market…. Thanks to my farming youtube addiction I have figured out how to do it based on what is done in Europe plus some necessary Nova Scotia modifications figured out the hard way. Because winter in most of Europe is considerably milder than here they don’t store as many carrots and, instead, continue to harvest throughout the winter. Because our winters tend to be colder and less predictable (sometimes really cold with no insulating layer of snow) we started experimenting on a small scale abut five years ago with just a couple of rows of carrots. We initially had very good success and have been slowly improving technique and increasing acreage ever since.
Let me try to explain how it works:
We grow our carrots in beds five feet wide with two rows, 25 inches apart on each bed. Step one is to use a straw bale chopper to put a small windrow of straw about a foot high between each pair of rows leaving the wheel tracks bare. Step 2 is to put plastic mulch (again, I am done with oxodegradeable and want to go fully biodegradable) over the carrot rows and the windrow of straw. The purpose of this is to shed the water so that the straw stays dry and insulates better and so that the carrots stay a bit drier and have less disease pressure. I tried without the plastic a couple of times and both times ran into disaster. Step 3 is to cover the entire field about 16 inches deep in chopped straw. The foot high ridges of plastic also form anchored ridges that can’t blow away and give the rest of the straw a place to hide from the wind (we learned this the hard way, of course, in year two).
Below are some youtube clips showing the process in Europe. My equipment only costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; theirs is in the millions!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLMfxi7RHLw Applying straw and plastic
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DL8CjZU4Rk Removing straw
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa78bQMNXbc Removing plastic and harvesting carrots
There have been trials and tribulations along the way but luckily I am very tenacious (my wife says stubborn) and keep going even when it looks bleak….that’s what makes me a good farmer. The fall of 2018 was very wet so disease levels were already high and as luck would have it, the field we chose to overwinter carrots in had less than perfect drainage. I was elated to dig a few carrots in March with a fork and find they looked good and tasted great. It didn’t turn out that way in the end. The wet and cold stressed the carrots somehow and it only became apparent after we had harvested, washed, bagged and sold some. They broke down in a matter of a week or so. Not fun. Oh well, 2019 would be better….except it wasn’t. Between weather forecasts leading us down the garden path and the audacity of my son and I going to Europe to see a farm machinery show we were caught off guard around the middle of November. One night while we were away the temperature dipped to minus 10 with 60-70 kph winds. We could see damage on some of the carrots but crossed our fingers, pout straw on them and waited to see what spring brought. This spring we were able to market about 50% of the crop… better than nothing I guess. Oh well 2020-21 will be better….
Next week I’ll include some video clips of our carrot harvesting.
In the meantime please try our supersweet carrots and…….
Keep eating your veggies!