Ask anyone to name a vegetable that is quintessentially British, and most people would no doubt say it’s the potato (of course we’ve adopted them as they originate from Peru around 5,000 BC). The humble carrot, however, is just as worthy of recognition, being full of flavour, packed with vitamins and nutrients, and available in this country for 11 months of the year. As a tasty raw snack, a side veg for traditional dinners or a versatile ingredient for casseroles, curries and even cakes, carrots are a great source of fibre and are rich in beta-carotene, which helps the body to produce Vitamin A. Just half a regular-sized carrot counts as one of your five a day.
British farmers are rightly proud of the fact that the UK is 97% self-sufficient in carrots, with availability throughout the year. As we all look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, we can be reassured that carrots have far less food miles attached to them than many other vegetables, which are often imported from Europe and beyond.
The pressures faced by UK carrot farmers
With strong, year-round demand for British carrots and an industry that’s worth £290 million per year, carrot farmers across the UK are faced with a range of issues that affect their crops and, therefore, their profit margins. Whilst ironically, supermarket marketing teams have been quick to capitalise on the ‘wonky veg’ idea, the fact remains that most farmers are under pressure to produce a carrot crop that is uniform in size and appearance, and to make that crop available on a flexible supply system, for supermarkets to call in when required. That alone puts a huge pressure on farmers to produce the most consistent crop possible, but there are other issues to consider too. Like most arable crops, carrots have their fair share of pests and diseases to contend with, and these need to be tackled effectively and at the lowest possible cost, in order to remain profitable, both during the growing stage and when the carrots are in storage. Consumer awareness about agricultural pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides is growing, and farmers are keen to respond to this by reducing their reliance on chemicals wherever possible. Also, just as livestock farming is seeing increased resistance to a range of antibiotics and worming agents, arable farmers are also starting to find resistance building up against traditional chemical treatments, such as Metalaxyl. Clearly, the pressures facing carrot farmers are very real and very significant, both in financial terms and environmentally.
The problems of pest & disease
Anyone who has tried growing carrots in their garden or allotment will instantly identify the carrot fly as the source of all evil, and the scourge of carrot growers everywhere. However, carrot farmers are faced with a whole host of other problems affecting the success of their crops, with a range of diseases possible from the moment the seed goes into the ground to the time the carrots come out of storage. Diseases can be bacterial, viral or fungal, and one of the most prolific diseases seen by UK growers is Cavity Spot. This disease, which is caused by soil-borne pathogens in the Pythium family, produces black lesions on affected carrots. Even minor lesions will result in rejection at the packing stage, and it’s common for diseased crops to be left in the field to rot, as it is not economical to harvest if the crop cannot be sold. Cavity Spot affects carrot crops across the UK, and can decimate harvests, with up to 10% crop losses each year, costing British farmers up to £30 million.
Working to find solutions
Agronomists and researchers are working hard to find effective solutions to the problems of both disease and chemical reliance and over-use, with some interesting trials currently taking place on the use of green manures and biofumigants as a control for the Pythium pathogens that cause Cavity Spot.
At the field level, farmers are increasingly looking for ways to take a preventative approach wherever possible and to reduce the need for fungicide applications. FungiAlert’s SporSenz system is a reliable and cost-effective means of analysing soil conditions in the field, to identify the precise pathogenic make-up of the soil on a field by field basis. By identifying the potential disease burden of each field, farmers can then make strategic decisions about planting, crop rotation, and spraying, in order to get the highest yields possible with the least disease incidence and the lowest possible use of fungicides.
The SporSenz system is a smart, easy-to-use soil testing kit that can bring real benefits to carrot farmers, in terms of improved yields, reduced fungicide costs and lower chemical burdens on the soil. Sensors are placed in the field and left for a period of time. They are then collected up and returned to FungiAlert in a pre-paid package, to be professionally analysed in the laboratory. Results are delivered promptly by email, and the farmer can then make informed soil management decisions for the good of the crop. Blanket spraying of every field is no longer required, and fungicides can be applied exactly when and where they are needed. Crop rotation and field selection can also be better managed, for a long-term improvement in yields and viability. Soil health can be monitored throughout the growing season, to monitor the efficacy of any fungicides applied, and to check that beneficial organisms are not being compromised. All in all, by investigating and monitoring soil health, farmers can make the best decisions possible for their crops, the environment, and their profits.