A Carrot Called Dulcinea

Petra Page-Mann and her partner, Matt Goldfarb, founded Fruition Seeds, in Naples, NY, in 2012 and together with Nathaniel Thompson they’ve embarked on an ambitious project to grow a better carrot.

Writer Alison Fromme

Photographer Heather Ainsworth

Collaborative carrot breeding and seed saving to support local control of the food system.

On a crisp fall day, Petra Page-Mann walked the fields of Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, NY, following owner Nathaniel Thompson as he drove a tractor, mechanically harvesting carrots. Petra eyed the carrots, selecting some as she walked.

More work lay ahead. Into the barn they moved pounds and pounds of carrots in big totes, strewing them across long tables where a team of people chose the best-looking roots, then cut off a tip for a taste and sorted them into three flavor categories: heaven, hell or purgatory.

Petra and her partner, Matt Goldfarb, founded Fruition Seeds, in Naples, NY, in 2012 and together with Nathaniel they’ve embarked on an ambitious project to grow a better carrot, tailored specifically to the Finger Lakes climate, soil, and culinary tastes. This sorting step was crucial to this process—and it worked. The result was released last fall, a sweet and tender carrot called Dulcinea.

This humble carrot—the seeds sold by Fruition Seeds, and the edible root itself sold by Remembrance Farm—represents a much bigger collaborative grassroots effort to support local control of the food system and to ensure that farmers have fair and open access to seeds.

Fruition Seeds was founded on that premise, developing and selling open-pollinated seeds, which means that farmers can save seed from a crop, plant it the next year and the vegetables taste just as good the second time around. Remembrance Farm, a 100-acre biodynamic farm, also embraces that local-control ethos.

This particular carrot project started years ago, with a very specific concern nagging Nathaniel. He grows a lot of carrots—about four acres or so—and for years he has relied on a tried-and-true variety, the Bolero. It grows well, it looks good, it tastes good. “But the seed company could pull that variety for some new and improved variety that isn’t adapted for the Finger Lakes,” he says. What if the company that produces Bolero seed scrapped that variety? What if they went out of business? He would be out of luck. He had seen it happen before with different crops.

“The seed industry is not geared toward growers on my scale,” Nathaniel says.

“We need to protect our seedshed like we protect our watershed. We need to work now to create the heirlooms of tomorrow.”

Petra shared his concern, for carrots and beyond. “One thousand years ago, seed saving and farming were synonymous,” Petra says. “But the farmer’s role has changed. We’ve outsourced that ability to companies. Now we’re reclaiming it.”

So, couldn’t they just save some carrot seeds one year, and plant them the next?

If only it was that simple. In this case, there were no patents or other legal restrictions on saving Bolero seeds. But carrot biology is a bugger.

First, carrots are biennial, which means that their life cycle is two years long. The first summer, they produce the characteristic carrot root. The second summer, they produce a flower. This makes for a slow breeding cycle.

Secondly, the Bolero variety is an F1 hybrid, which means it is the result of breeding two distinct parent varieties. The resulting F1 Bolero is great. But F1 hybrids are often sterile. And, if two Boleros do in fact breed for yet another generation, their genes get all mixed up in weird, wild, unpredictable—and often nasty-tasting—ways. Petra says they can taste like pine resin.

And thirdly, here in the Finger Lakes, carrots left to their own devices will interbreed with Queen Anne’s Lace. All this is to say that saving Bolero seed doesn’t work for our farmers. So what could work?

Petra, Matt and Nathaniel wanted to “de-hybridize” the bolero and create an open-pollinated carrot. One that would breed true to itself and not create weird offspring. A carrot that tasted good, grew well, stored well and was open pollinated.

They connected with Irwin Goldman, a plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin, who could help. He’s one of the founders of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), which is dedicated to maintaining free and open access to plant genetic material. In other words, the OSSI promotes seed sharing and the rights of growers and breeders to freely use, save, replant and improve seeds.

Irwin had the space, the knowledge and the people-power to breed carrots. He already had an open-source Wisconsin carrot variety in mind that could breed with Bolero to “stabilize” it—to encourage it to produce consistent carrots generation after generation.

“The seed industry is not geared toward growers on my scale,” Nathaniel says.

So first, in a greenhouse, Irwin grew pairs of the Wisconsin variety and the Bolero, like carrot couples, with their flowers cozied up together under bags to ensure they only pollinated each other. When these plants produced seeds, Irwin sent them to Nathaniel to grow at Remembrance Farm. When the carrots were harvested, Petra and a team of friends, family and employees joined in to select the best plants. They wanted the plants that leafed out early in the spring, to better outcompete weeds. They wanted beautifully straight carrots. And of course, they wanted heavenly taste. Those very best carrots, about 100 or 200 in all (with a tasting chunk cut off), were mailed back to Irwin for another round of breeding.

Irwin went through the process again, simulating a quick winter in a refrigerator and growing the roots to the flower stage in a greenhouse during the actual Wisconsin winter to produce seeds. The process continued for several years, until the team arrived at a carrot that bred true, generation after generation, and tasted delicious.

Fruition Seeds continues to select each generation, and is now partnering with other farms out west to produce the seeds and avoid the pesky Queen Anne’s Lace problem.

And that is the carrot called Dulcinea.

“We need to protect our seedshed like we protect our watershed,” Petra says. “We need to work now to create the heirlooms of tomorrow.”

Heather Ainsworth is a regular contributor to a myriad of publications and serves as chair of the National Press Photographers Association’s NY/Int’l region.

Alison Fromme likes to eat, and write. She is associate director of the Colgate Writers’ Conference and she’s a former fellow of the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. @alisonfromme

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