Working Around the Calendar to Breed Organic Carrots

OSA’s Laurie McKenzie and Micaela Colley harvesting carrots in El Centro

This past week OSA researchers, Laurie McKenzie and Micaela Colley, joined Dr. Phil Simon and his research team in El Centro, CA, (just north of the Mexico border) to select carrot roots for seed production and breeding. They selected roots from approximately 1,000 different populations, representing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes for this season’s breeding efforts. Carrot is a biennial crop, producing roots in the first year and seed in the second. Access to a production field in a warm winter climate such as El Centro (also called a winter nursery) provides the opportunity to select roots in the winter and produce seed in the summer, allowing researchers to complete a full cycle of breeding in one year instead of two.

Dr. Simon, the lead researcher of the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project, worked with the OSA team to identify and select roots from a vast rainbow of colors in addition to orange bunching types with priority traits for organic farmers such as delicious flavor, crisp and juicy texture, disease and nematode resistance, and tall tops for weed competition. Dr. Simon, with over 35 years of experience, still tastes nearly every selected root before deciding which to keep and which to toss out.

The novel colors and novel color combinations are always a highlight and delight to pull out of the soil. Some stand-outs this year included roots of the deepest purple, red Nantes type with quality tops and sweet flavor, blunt and stocky yellow roots that were deliciously sweet and crisp, and one of Simon and McKenzie’s favorites dubbed ‘Purple Heart’ for the bright contrast of a yellow root with a deep purple core. Simon and OSA also selected roots to cross this summer with the intent to combine tall tops, good flavor, high beta-carotene (dark orange color), and nematode and cavity spot resistance into an orange bunching variety.

The CIOA project resulted in development and release of nematode resistant carrots over the past five years and the breeding trials showed great progress integrating this critical trait into carrots with good flavor and other important market traits. Varieties are not yet ready for commercial release, but the CIOA team plans to partner with organic seed companies and farmers to finish breeding and release new varieties in the coming years.

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