Carrot growers aim to put taste back on the shelf
CARROTS face an uncertain future in the traditional growing areas of the north-west as supermarkets shun produce on the grounds of poor root shape.
Buyers are putting the cylindrical appearance of crops grown on the sandlands of the east ahead of taste, say brothers Robert and Richard Travis.
That means they can only sell their produce to smaller supermarkets and retailers and the catering trade, despite the superior flavour of carrots grown on the Lancashire blacklands around Ormskirk.
The family has grown carrots from New House Farm, Burscough, for nearly 40 years. Half their 485ha (1200 acres) of arable cropping is combinable crops and half carrots, potatoes and white turnips.
The first sowings are made as early as January, weather permitting, and the entire crop is in the ground by late May. Early crops are protected by polythene while the rest is either top lifted or straw covered for winter lifting. Some are traditionally ridged.
Carrot harvesters work all year round. A two-row self-propelled top puller is used from late May until the autumn when a switch is made to share lifting.
"The aim is to harvest them as efficiently as we can to ensure the crop arrives for washing and packing in the best possible condition," says Robert Travis.
But diligence is not being rewarded. "Cylindrical, smooth skinned sandland carrots are what the supermarkets want. Their buyers tell us that carrots must have "eye appeal" above all else. Taste does not appear to be a concern. The consumer is being dictated to and being offered carrots that look nice but lack flavour."
Efforts are being made to meet supermarket specification while retaining traditional flavour. "We have started growing new varieties like Nerac which can grow too long on sandland. We get a good shape with Nerac, but the plant breeders have sacrificed frost resistance in pursuit of appearance. Its a price we have to pay to stay in the game."
But more research needs to be carried out, so it is disappointing there are no longer any NIAB trials for carrots grown on blackland, they say.
"We have a superior carrot crop that has a taste many supermarket shoppers are being deprived of. Unlike carrots grown on sandland we do not have to irrigate. Our crops are grown on an environmentally sustainable system which does not need the same degree of inputs demanded by carrots grown on lighter land."
• Fred Tyler, Horticulture Business Development Manager with ADAS, has worked closely on trial work with the Travis brothers for many years.
"Visual appeal is very important to supermarkets, but I believe flavour will become increasingly important. Its something that will hopefully enhance demand, particulary for early season Lancashire carrots," says Mr Tyler.n
Robert Travis: Rooting for a better future for Lancashire carrots.
• Good taste from blacklands.
• Do not require irrigation.
• Wrong shape for supermarkets.
• Trying to match shape.
• Consumers miss out on taste.