Sandy soil and cool nights have made a sweet crop even sweeter. University of Georgia scientists say Georgia farmers have more than doubled carrot production since just last year.
"Georgia farmers in 13 counties are growing about 2,600 acres of carrots this year," said Terry Kelley, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Harvesting carrots in a field in Wayne County. The small wheel in the front provides a visual guide for the tractor driver. The harvester pulls up the carrots, carries them up an incline by the tops, then cuts off the top.
The top is left in the field behind the harvester. The carrots move up the conveyer, which shakes off extra soil. The topped carrots fall into the trailer following alongside the harvester.
At the packing house, the carrots are washed and trimmed to remove excess soil and root parts.
Then the carrots are checked for quality and inferior carrots are discarded. They are sorted by size and bagged.
Carrots generally get to your supermarket in 1-, 2-, 5- or 10-pound bags. Schools, restaurants or small processors may buy carrots in 50-pound bags. Carrots store well, but usually get from the field to your supermarket in two or three days. ÿ
That's up from about 1,200 acres in nine counties during the '97-'98 season. Many farmers saw the success of the crop in previous years and are adding carrots to their farms or expanding their carrot acreage.
Some carrot farmers are also moving their acreage to Georgia from Florida. Because environmental groups are working to preserve muck soil lands, farmers who raised carrots there are moving their operations to other areas.
Conditions just right
The soil and climate in southwest Georgia are ideal to grow carrots during the winter.
UGA research scientist Sharad Phatak said the cool nights in south Georgia contribute the carrots' distinctively sweet taste.
"During the day, the green tops fix carbon dioxide (through photosynthesis)," Phatak said. "At night, the carbon dioxide moves into the root and is stored as sugar - energy - for growth."
Sandy soil with few rocks allows carrot roots to grow straight down without twists or bends. "Shoppers want nice, straight carrots, eight or 10 inches long," Kelley said. "With these conditions, we can deliver that."
Carrots at the market
You may find Georgia carrots in your favorite market as "Georgia Sweet Carrots," "Lake Park Brand" or "Vidalia's Pride." But Kelley said it's more likely that shoppers in New England will find them.
"Most of the produce in Georgia, not just carrots, is shipped away from the growing area," he said. "The bulk of our produce goes to the northern tier of states."
Unusual 1999 weather
This year's unusually warm winter hasn't been as much help to the farmers as you might think. Phatak said the warm weather has forced farmers to hustle carrots out of the fields. With colder days, farmers can "store" carrots in the field, he said.
Kelley said the relative heat is adding to farmers' disease worries and costs, too.
"It's keeping disease organisms alive and potentially damaging carrot tops," he said. "It's not decreasing yields yet. But controlling this problem is adding to the farmers' costs to raise the crop."
Georgia carrot history
Georgia farmers have been growing carrots for processing for years. Baby food companies have bought Georgia carrots since the 1980s, Kelley said. But farmers have grown carrots for fresh markets only since about 1991.
But Phatak said UGA scientists have been researching carrots since 1975. "We were ready with management recommendations when farmers began growing them," he said.
Scientists and agents with the UGA Extension Service helped a group of farmers form a cooperative in Bacon County to grow, process and market their carrots in 1993.
"Economics has convinced many farmers to grow them," Kelley said. "They've seen carrots as a good opportunity to diversify their operation and potentially increase their profits."