In Praise of Local Carrots
Some vegetables are trendy and exciting, like the ramps that appear at the farmers market in early spring and the fiddleheads that come into season just long enough to go back out again. Then there are the old reliables, the go-to veggies that are staples in your kitchen year-round.
Making it local
Brothers Jason and Kevin Stallaert love farming. They grew up on a tomato farm in the Chatham-Kent region of southern Ontario; in 1994, both left careers in the trades to return to it. "We have some of the best farmland in Canada around here," says Jason, as well as the longest growing season of anywhere in the country.
What they didn't love was how the farming industry was set up in their area. If farmers wanted to grow anything besides tomatoes, for which the processing plants are nearby, they had to ship their freight almost 350 kilometres to the warehouses north of Toronto that supply most grocery stores.
The brothers began growing carrots and onions, but with the cost of freight, they could barely break even. In 2004, before "local" was even a buzzword, they opened their own warehouse, Nature's Finest Produce, in a former tomato-canning plant nearby.
Operating a local warehouse cut out the extra freight costs and reduced their carbon footprint, but the savings only went so far. In North America, carrots are planted in the spring, harvested in late summer/early fall, then carefully kept in cold storage to be sent out to stores throughout the winter. Around March, the stock runs out and warehouses must import carrots-most from California-to bridge the gap until Canadian-grown crops are once again available. It meets the off-season demand, but consumers and the environment pay the price.
Everything old is new again
Trying to gain a competitive edge over other warehouses and still turn a profit, the Stallaerts started searching for a better way to bridge the gap during the off-season.
Jason remembered seeing a video of how European farmers store their produce in the ground through the winter, a technique called overwintering. The carrots are planted in the spring as usual, but instead of harvesting them in the fall, the ground is covered in a thick insulating layer of straw to create natural cold storage right there. The carrots can then be uncovered and harvested in early spring when the fall harvest runs out. While no commercial farms in North America used this technique, the Stallaerts saw its potential to create a year-round supply of local carrots.