By Dan Lemke
Tucked among the corn, sugarbeet and soybean fields of western Minnesota, several hundred acres of plants sport feathery green fronds. The sight of large fields of carrots growing in Minnesota is enough to make even seasoned farmers do a double take.
“It’s kind of funny because people will stop on the road, especially when you’re harvesting or planting,” says Paul Schmidgall, general manager for Fresha, a Morris-based carrot company. “We get a lot of sightseers, which is cool.”
Morris area farmer Dan Schaefer grew carrots for companies in Minnesota and Wisconsin for several years. Most of the carrots he grew were bound for the processed foods market.
“We were just looking for some value-added crops that would be a good fit for our climate and soil,” Schaefer, Fresha CEO recalls.
Schaefer and Schmidgall, who have food processing and manufacturing backgrounds, pondered the possibility of starting an enterprise to process and package Minnesota-grown carrots for fresh markets.
“We were searching for ways to expand our acres, so we looked at where the consumption was and there’s a lot more consumption in the fresh than there is in the processed, canned or frozen categories,” Schaefer says. “We looked into that and it seemed like 85 percent of the carrots were coming from California.”
Schaefer says with freight accounting for a large percentage of the product cost and California growers facing water and environmental challenges, they saw a real opportunity for a regional player to enter the market.
Schaefer and Schmidgall did extensive research in 2018 on what farmers in Europe and Canada do to raise and store carrots. Fresha, LLC was formed in 2019, with a storage and processing facility constructed near Morris, Minnesota.
Close to Home
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the states of California, Texas and Washington are the top three carrot-producing states in the country. To get fresh carrots from those states to markets in the Midwest and elsewhere means the carrots can spend a lot of time in storage and transit. Schaefer and Schmidgall recognized that growing carrots closer to Midwestern markets meant fresher, better-tasting products.
“I would say that locally grown translates into less time on the road, fresher, more flavorful carrots,” Schmidgall says. “We believe we have a flavor advantage with our northern climate carrot. Growing in the cooler climate like we get towards the fall tends to gather more of the sugars into the root and produces sweeter flavored carrots. Our late season carrots especially have a bit of a flavor advantage.”
Carrots are primarily consumed fresh and, according to the USDA, carrots are the sixth-most consumed fresh vegetable in the United States. Annual consumption of fresh carrots is approximately 8.3 pounds per person. Baby-cut carrot products have been the fastest-growing segment of the carrot industry since the early 1990s and are among the most popular produce items in the supermarket aisle.
Fresha produces an array of fresh carrot items including whole carrots, baby carrots, mini carrots, carrot chips, carrot plugs, carrot coins, matchstick carrots and jumbo carrots. Fresha’s processing and storage facility features advanced technology that keeps carrots stored in optimal conditions before they are marketed. The bulk of Fresha’s products are bound for markets primarily in the Midwest.
“Our focus is mainly on a six-state area. Minneapolis is a major market.Nevertheless, we actually have done quite a bit of shipping into Chicago, we’ve done Des Moines, Kansas City, and the I-29 corridor including Sioux Falls and Fargo,” Schmidgall explains. “In lower quantities, we’ve actually shipped out to the East Coast. We’ve done the terminal market and some of the bigger cities. If we get some excess loads, we can do Philadelphia and New York City. We’ve done Atlanta before, but we mostly focus on the upper Midwest.”
“We need a certain volume to make it work,” Schaefer says. “We’re targeting about a 600-mile radius. Compared to California, that’s still pretty close.”
Schmidgall says Fresha harvested about 8,000 tons of carrots in 2020. About 5,000 tons were stored and sold throughout the year while the other 3,000 pounds were marketed right around harvest. For 2021, about 380 acres of carrots have been planted, including a small organic parcel used as a pilot project.
Carrots are typically planted in April and May like most familiar Minnesota crops. However, Schmidgall says carrots require an extra level of attention, especially since they have not been grown as a crop in the area for very long.
“They’re pretty new to our area, as in not more than 10 years,” Schmidgall explains. “Growing carrots is very agronomically intense – there’s the soil bed preparation, the monitoring for crop treatment through the season and monitoring to make sure of the watering. When the sprouts are small, they get a little bit of water a lot of times, sometimes every day if it isn’t raining. You have to keep the sprouts moist, so I’d say it takes quite a bit more management than a traditional corn and soybean-type of a crop.”
Schmidgall says carrots grow best in slightly cooler conditions, with 50 to 70 degrees considered a temperature sweet spot. The cool conditions, especially at night, help the carrot store more sugar, making for a sweeter, better-tasting carrot.
“Carrots really are a cooler, northern-climate crop,” Schaefer says. “That’s really their origin and that’s where they probably taste the sweetest and the crispest. Production migrated to California because they could grow them year-round. Sometimes carrots there are harvested in really hot months, but that doesn’t create as good a tasting carrot as the ones grown in the cool climate where you have the cool nights in the fall and the carrots sweeten up.”
Carrots prefer looser soils since they are a root crop. The looser soils help farmers grow long, straight carrots. Loose soils tend to be sandy, so irrigation is often required to maintain optimal soil moisture levels.
“You’re trying to get all of them to look like a perfect carrot, but that’s not how nature works,” Schaefer says. “We try to do things to maximize the amount of number one carrots we can grow per acre. We can grow nice carrots and get good yields in this region, but we’re still working on how to get the prettiest looking carrots every time.”
Schmidgall says the bulk of Fresha’s carrot harvest takes place in October. Similar to the process for harvesting sugarbeets, carrots are lifted out of the ground. The soil is loosened below the carrots by equipment that looks like a plowshare. Then the harvester plucks the carrots from the ground.
“The harvester uses the top to pull the carrot out of the dirt and then the tops are removed right at the harvester and the tops stay in the field,” Schmidgall says.
The carrots bound for long-term storage are stored without washing. Schmidgall says when the carrots are ready to market, they are cleaned and prepped.
“In the case of the table carrots, the whole carrot, we just wash and package. In the case of the baby cut, there is the peeling component,” Schmidgall adds.
Carving a Future
AURI scientific staff provided a sugar analysis for several Fresha carrot varieties and assisted in a Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) application to the USDA Rural Development. The VAPG program helps agricultural producers with value-added activities related to the processing and marketing of new products.
Schaefer says there are inherent challenges trying to displace a couple of large carrot growers that have been in place for decades and are very established suppliers. But he does see opportunity.
“I’d be lying if I said it was easy to go out and sell as many carrots as you want, but we have created a little following that really seems to like our product,” Schaefer says.
Being regionally focused, Schaefer says Fresha can react more quickly to a customer’s needs than competitors located on the other side of the country.
“If someone in Minneapolis needs a load of carrots, we can have them there very quickly. They couldn’t do that from California, even if they wanted to,” Schaefer says.
Schmidgall says in addition to marketing a variety of fresh carrot products, there is potential for value-added production. But for now, Fresha needs to focus on the task at hand.
“We’re still working hard at getting our business launched and at market development for the products that we already have on the plate. We’ve got quite a bit of work to do to keep those moving forward,” Schmidgall says. “As we go, obviously more of the raw carrot pound that we can use in a finished product of some kind, the better. I’d say we’ll continue to explore the after-processing ideas or options.”
“It’s not easy to get the volume, to get the traction that you need, but it’s coming. We know it’s going to take several years to get some brand recognition,” Schaefer admits, “but I think there’s a future for us.”