North Dakota carrot growers are competing with California and Arizona growers for a share of their market, and they have a number of advantages, not the least of which is climate.
Although the growing season is shorter, the Red River Valley's long summer days that allow the plants to carry on photosynthesis for a longer period and short cool nights that push sugars into the root system create the most significant advantage-the product itself, which some consider sweeter than the competition.
"People found North Dakota carrots to be sweeter when compared to store-bought, packaged carrots grown on the West Coast," says Chiwon Lee, assistant professor of plant sciences at North Dakota State University in Fargo (NDSU). Lee's current research focuses on improving the overall quality of the carrot through the use of genetic biotechnology.
Other advantages include lower land rents, lower pesticide costs and lower transportation costs to the East Coast. "We have a 1,500 mile jump on California," says Ron Smith, NDSU extension horticulturist. Cold North Dakota winters help keep storage refrigeration costs down, and, Smith says, there's also the perception that North Dakota produces a healthier product, one grown in a smog-free, fresh air climate.
"Carrots are one of the fastest growing crops in North Dakota," Smith says. North Dakota farmers grew only 60 acres of carrots six years ago, but now they are shifting crops or using idle land to raise that number to over 3,000 acres this year-and researchers say this figure could possibly reach 10,000 by the turn of the century. The challenge is to get more farmers to sign on. "We don't expect this to turn into big business-growth will be gradual, relying on the domino effect as more and more farmers see others' success and are willing to take the risk of shifting their crop base," Smith says.
While the state's farmers have the ability to produce the crop, and the technology exists for processing, storage and transport, breaking into an already tight market is a formidable task. "Establishing product identity is critical-perhaps someday the carrot will be as synonymous with the Red River Valley as the potato is to Idaho," says Smith. Farmer cooperatives have already established regional markets, where loyalty to local products is strong, and look to expand nationally and internationally to the Pacific Rim, where 43 percent of the world's population lives.