eatlocal

All about carrots

One of our biggest crops at Rural Studio Farm is carrots.

A heap of freshly washed purple and orange carrots sits on the wash table

We can grow these tasty taproots in the field or the greenhouse during both spring and autumn. They are also cold-hardy, so they can be overwintered in the field for harvests throughout winter, just as we are doing right now.

Carrots are a member of the Umbelliferae family. Umbellula means umbrella in Latin, and many members of this family have umbrella-shaped flower clusters. This plant family also includes dill, parsley, caraway, cumin, fennel, parsnips, cilantro, celery, angelica, and Queen Anne’s lace. Carrots most likely originated in present-day Afghanistan, and the earliest records of their domestication are from Persia. Originally, all carrots were either white or purple until a mutation resulted in a chance yellow carrot. The yellow pigment—as well as reds and oranges—are from a class of chemicals called carotenoids, which are common in many of the fruits we eat, such as bell peppers, oranges, mangoes, melons, avocados and tomatoes. They also form the vibrant dark green of many leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and broccoli. Nutritionally, carotenoids act as antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, and are broken down in the body to form vitamin A.

Functionally, plants use carotenoids to aid in photosynthesis, so it is unusual that an underground plant part, like a carrot taproot, would express this color. The modern orange carrot emerged from cultivation of the chance yellow carrot strain. These new orange carrots were widely cultivated by the Dutch—supposedly as a tribute to William of Orange who led the fight for Dutch independence—and then popularized by the French. We still grow mostly orange carrots at RS Farm, but we also grow red, orange, purple, and yellow ones. They add a bright pop of color and each has their own differing flavor profiles.

Carrots are one of the few crops that we do not start as transplants because the taproots do not respond well to being disturbed. Instead, we spread the seed with a push seeder, which shallowly deposits seed at set intervals. Carrots can be planted close together and do not always have very even germination, so the seeder saves a lot of time. Keeping the soil moist is the best way to improve germination. It is also important to keep the soil moist as the roots grow, since uneven watering can cause the roots to split or crack.

While the tops of carrots are edible and can be used for making things like vegetable stock or pesto, we grow carrots for the roots. Farm-fresh carrots have much more flavor than supermarket carrots, and we love them fresh in our salads. Most carrots, however, will be frozen for future meals to be enjoyed even when they are not in season.  

A closeup of carrot foliage in the greenhouse

The new RS Farm turns four

January means a new year, and it also marks the beginning of the fourth year of production on the redesigned Rural Studio Farm.

Two students start seeds in 72-cell seedling trays

With each successive year, we refine our techniques and continue to add more to the farm. In 2021, we raised our total production from 5,701 pounds to 6,352 pounds. But we didn’t just produce more, we produced smarter by growing more of what we needed and thereby reduced waste.

We also added several crops to our rotation, most notably sweet corn and sweet potatoes—both of which made it to our top ten list for the year.

Top ten crop list for 2021 (pounds)

  1. summer squash and zucchini           654.1
  2. Asian and Italian eggplant                 519.2
  3. tomatoes and cherry tomatoes         492.9
  4. lettuces                                             485.6
  5. kale                                                   415
  6. mustard greens                                 403.9
  7. sweet potatoes                                 374.8
  8. turnips                                               369.5
  9. sweet corn                                        264.2
  10. carrots                                              257.3

In 2021, we also expanded our growing space by adding new permanent raised beds in an area of campus that was previously difficult to manage.

Finally, we planted numerous fruit trees and berry bushes: blueberries, kiwiberries, Asian pears, crabapples, figs, elderberries, and mayhaw.

Looking ahead to this year, we want to further diversify the crops that we grow to increase resilience and biodiversity on the farm. We also want to continue to add more long-term crops—like fruit trees—which will have big payoffs in the future. Speaking of which, this will be the first year when we can begin to harvest asparagus, so stay tuned!

Sweet potato harvest

Students harvested the first sweet potato crop since the Rural Studio’s farm reboot in 2019.

But unlike previous sweet potato crops, these were grown in the greenhouse. The Farm’s passive solar greenhouse gets so hot and still during the long Alabama summers that it can be difficult to grow many crops in the peak of summer, and sweet potatoes take up so much space that they are difficult to grow in our small, intensively managed outdoor cultivated areas. Growing the potatoes this way solved both difficulties at once!

Sweet potatoes are most often grown from slips, which are small shoots cut from mature sweet potato tubers and rooted. The farm team planted 200 sweet potato slips into the raised beds in the greenhouse on June 7.

In only a matter of weeks the vines from the growing slips swallowed up the greenhouse: filling the aisles, climbing the barrel wall, and bursting through the windows. It was a beautiful transformation of the space that required almost no maintenance all summer long.

After four months, students dug up the new tubers and cleared out all of the vines.

Once dug up, the tubers then needed to be placed in a warm, humid environment in which to cure for about two weeks. During the curing process, the sweet potatoes’ skin thickens somewhat, any wounds or nicks heal over, and the sweet flavor of the flesh concentrates. Not only does this improve the flavor, but it significantly lengthens their storage potential, so students and staff can enjoy sweet potatoes all throughout the winter.

Autumn On The Farm

Autumn at Rural Studio Farm is in full swing.

A student uses a sprayer to apply foliar fertilizer to growing plants with a good view of the farm

Some of the lingering warmer season crops are still yielding, like eggplant, peanuts, and bell peppers.

Mostly we have been busy planting seeds into soil blocks and direct-sowing with the push seeder. These crops are lettuces, mustard greens, baby brassica greens, carrots, beets, chard, collard greens, rutabagas, broccoli, radishes, spinach, hakurei (salad) turnips, and turnips.

Once the seedlings are ready, we prepare the beds and transplant out all the crops.

We have been reaping great harvests of many of these crops too, with all of Rural Studio’s daily green salads coming straight off the farm.

Now that the weather is beginning to cool, we have also been preparing for winter by sowing fall cover crops to leave in the field for overwintering. This ensures that there is always something growing in the beds, which helps with drainage and compaction and overall soil health. In the spring, these crops will be mowed down, adding good organic matter back into the soil.

Finally, we are also preparing the greenhouse for production over the winter, which is where most of Rural Studio’s food is grown in deep winter.

Welcome to the Rural Studio Farm blog!

The Rural Studio Farm is all-organic, small-scale, and intensively managed, making use of sustainable agricultural practices. In addition to providing fresh, organic produce for students and staff, the farm has become an integrated part of all the architecture students’ experience coming through Rural Studio.

Bright and early each morning, a group of students works with our farm manager, Eric Ball, in all aspects of crop production, from seed-starting, to transplanting, to harvesting—and finally enjoying the fruits of their labors during shared meals prepared at the Studio. We feel this is important way to better understand the realities of living in a rural place, especially in Alabama’s Black Belt region where the historical and social legacy is etched into the very landscape.

This is the beginning of the second year of food production since the farm has undergone a major reboot, and you can catch all the updates on what is happening right here every week.

Learn more about the mission and history of the Rural Studio Farm here.