By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
I was on a remote trout stream in Colorado a few years ago when I told another fisherman I was from Bakersfield.
“Oh, where all the carrots come from,” he said.
I nodded not knowing this. A week later I was in Wisconsin in a grocery store. Sure enough, all of the carrots in the produce section were from Kern County! As a valley native, I always thought we were cotton, alfalfa, and potatoes. It gave me a bit of pride to know that we had such a large footprint in national carrot sales.
California now accounts for 85% of all the U.S. fresh market carrot production. The carrot is now grown year-round in our state, with Michigan and Texas coming in with a distant second and third place. In our southern San Joaquin Valley, carrots are planted from December to March for harvest from May to July and from July to September for harvest from November to February. It is a nearly year-round operation.
As a local carrot farmer told me, “We want to control every drop of moisture.” He then said that the desert had become prime carrot territory for this reason.
In the southern desert, they are planted from August to February for harvest from December to June. In the high desert they are planted from April to July for harvest from August to December.
Carrots now are ranked 17th among California’s top 20 livestock and crop commodities according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This number might even be low because some regions include carrots with other vegetable crops without a separate break out.
The Central California carrot market was truly revolutionized when, according to legend, the Yurosek family figured out a way to market their culled carrots for general consumption and not just for animal feed. In the early 1980s, less than perfect carrots were run through an industrial bean cutter shaved down into what became known as “baby carrots.” Small individualized bags of carrots soon became a favorite with families on the go or with the fitness craze sweeping the nation.
Bolthouse Farms also took a fair share of the credit for marketing the new product. Today these two-inch pieces of peeled carrot account for 70% of all carrot sales. And all this derived from a commodity that would have become animal feed or compost. Other cut options soon hit the market including shredded carrots and carrot chips. Convenience soon became the bottom line for carrots.
In the San Joaquin Valley, carrot production is highly mechanized and is now a highly evolved efficient operation. Carrots used for food processing and for fresh carrots use mechanical harvesting. Folks in the local ag business are very deferential to Grimmway Farms for the breadth and scope of their carrot operation.
One local grower said, “Those guys do everything right. They are a huge company, but you can still sense it is a family run farm.” Grimmway contracts with growers in the Imperial Valley and farms its own carrots in the San Joaquin Valley. Between February and May, Grimmway’s production line in Bakersfield is rocking and rolling. Going back to their family roots, the company also makes a point to be very charitable investing in education, community health and employee wellness.
One last story. My wife and I were in Paris a couple years ago having dinner at our favorite “bouillon” or family style restaurant. A large hearty man was seated next to my wife in the communal style. He spoke very little English, so we managed with my bad African French and hand gestures. We said we were from Bakersfield and he said he was a French farmer but had lived in Shafter and Wasco. I asked him why Kern County? He said he had been raising the nantes variety of carrot his entire life and was tired of not making money. He had come to Kern County to learn how to “get rich in the carrot business.” My wife asked if he was now rich? He smiled and said, “I will pay for the wine tonight.”
I would like to thank the Kern County Farm Bureau and the California Department of Food and Agriculture for the statistical information.