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Don’t Judge a Carrot by its Cover

The story of a carrot & how our imaginations seed the world

By Petra Page-Mann

Don’t judge a book by its cover…

…as the proverb reminds us…

…and this is true for carrots, too.

The seeds we sow grow so much more than calories and, as we cultivate cultures of care and collective flourishing, our seeds may well grow us more than we grow them.

It’s true, this is a story about carrots, though I must warn you: this carrot is orange, long and deliciously tapering. At first glance, you’ll simply see a carrot. But these roots are so much more. And if we’ve done our work well, these roots will nourish us for countless generations.

The Root of Dulcinea

Some fruits and vegetables we know by name: Granny Smith apple, Sugar Snap pea, Brandywine tomato, Cafe au Lait is ohhhhh what a dahlia.

Most varieties are anonymous in our gardens and at the grocery store, the anonymous commodity that fits the status quo’s quintessential assumption of what is romaine lettuce, what is an onion. This is basil, this is butternut squash. There are hundreds — thousands! — of stories, ‘varieties’ that become any given carrot, though many of us simply stop at ‘carrot.’ Nonetheless, every seed, like each of us, has a story. A name. A past, present and future.

This is the story of Dulcinea, a bright orange carrot easy to grow in short seasons, tolerant of stony soils and sweetening in storage more than any other carrot we’ve tasted.

Dulcinea’s story is interwoven with Bolero — and even if you’ve never heard of it before, you’ve likely tasted them many times. Bolero is classic orange, long and tapered — yes, it’s a carrot. Though not the most delicious, what makes Bolero special is this: super vigorous with strong tops, it’s ideal for mechanical harvest and thus is grown on thousands of acres across the world, in conventional and organic fields alike, though it is only offered as conventional seed.

Indeed, Bolero is a profoundly patented F1 Hybrid that tens of thousands of farmers must purchase each season.

At first glance, you won’t see what makes Dulcinea and Bolero so different.

But like each of us and every seed, there is so much more to the story.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

Planting the Seed

Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm grows 100 acres of biodynamic vegetables in Trumansburg, NY, in the Finger Lakes region, including about 7 acres of carrots each season largely for his winter CSA. Over the years he has trialed dozens of nantes-style varieties, hunting for that holy grail of vigor, storage and sweetness. Though not the most delectable, he has found few that compare to Bolero, which is hard to swallow.

“Even after years of trials, our biodynamic farm is still dependent on this conventional, hybrid seed,” Nathaniel sighed. And he isn’t alone. In 2015, the French multinational breeding company Vilmorin, who bred and now produces Bolero, announced it would never be releasing the F1 as organic seed.

“After years,” Nathaniel said, “I was finally going crazy.”

Nathaniel approached us here at Fruition Seeds. We focus on regional adaptation as well as organics and we love to collaborate. We had helped Nathaniel develop select strains of hyper-petaled, super-colorful calendula for his salad mixes and a super-frilled, cold-tolerant Red Russian kale to amplify his abundance in both spring and fall. Could we de-hybridize Bolero, as well?

The day Nathaniel asked us to de-hybridize Bolero, it was our turn to swallow hard. Carrots are prone to severe inbreeding depression and, since they cross so readily with Queen Anne’s Lace and are difficult to produce well in isolation cages, they’re challenging to grow to seed here in the Northeast. We immediately turned to our dear friend and mentor Irwin Goldman, a public plant breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has worked with carrots for decades.

Irwin picked up the phone immediately and jumped in right away. Instrumental in founding the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), Irwin shared his insight that since Bolero’s parent lines were likely so inbred, it would be counter-productive to simply ‘de-hybridize’ Bolero. ‘Crossing Bolero with OSSI’s nantes-style carrot population was an elegant solution,’ shared Irwin, ‘combining the specificity of Bolero with the broader but still desirable genetics of a healthy nantes population to make a much more resilient carrot.’

That winter, Irwin crossed several Bolero carrots into the OSSI nantes population and sent Fruition the seed the following season, beginning a cycle we would follow for years to come. The seed was sown at Remembrance Farm, with agronomic selections made throughout the season and especially at harvest. We selected each root for classic nantes shape as well as early, abundant leaf production, providing early vigor and early maturity as well as machine harvest. After storing the roots in the root cellar for three months (this is the optimum minimum vernalization period for carrots), we made taste and texture selections, inviting all members of our community to help us decide which roots we collectively loved best. Those roots were then mailed to Irwin who planted them in his glass houses to produce seed over the winter. Brilliantly, and with utmost generosity, Irwin’s immense vision and expertise allowed this biennial crop to be produced annually for many seasons, refining our process with each season.

Making the Selections

There is much to select for, Friends! Within the context of Nathaniel’s biodynamic farm, we selected this new carrot, brilliantly orange, to be scrumptious in summer as well as in storage. We also valued early, vigorous leaf production and Nathaniel’s farm has an abundance of stones (perhaps you can relate!) making long, straight roots in such soil a selection, indeed.

Selecting for flavor was immensely illuminating: Without consistent selection, carrots bring forth their bitter ancestry. Tasting this legacy in all their piney, resinous intensity was eye-opening as well as tongue-tingling. At first, perhaps as many as one in eighty carrots would have a distinct and unmistakable pinesol-esque quality. With each generation, the proportion decreases. Still, with every generation and always, we are making flavor selections. And it’s paid off: Within three generations, Dulcinea was significantly sweeter and more tender than Bolero both in summer and in storage.

As we made flavor selections, we had three bins: One labeled ‘heaven,’ another ‘hell’ and the third one was ‘purgatory.’ We love flavor wheels and articulating nuance, though as hundreds of people were tasting hundreds of roots, we had to keep it simple! Delicious roots went to ‘heaven’ to be planted out and become the seeds of the next generation. Bitter roots went to ‘hell’ to feed our neighbor’s pigs. We only circled back to ‘purgatory’ if we needed more roots to ensure ‘heaven’ had a healthy population size (200 roots minimum), to avoid any risk of inbreeding depression. Only in the first generation did we have to dip into purgatory, so most of those roots became soup for us all.

Selecting for long-term storage was also straightforward: Nathaniel is growing these carrots largely for storage and has optimal storage conditions, making it simple to select for long-storing roots.

The greatest challenge for us has been selecting for that early, vigorous leaf production that is so much the hallmark of Bolero. At first, we attempted selections by flagging vigorous individuals in the field six weeks after planting. The time invested did not prove fruitful, so we next made vigor selections by simply making a visual evaluation at harvest. Our observations suggest that early, vigorous leaf production may be indicated by above-average leaves present at harvest. Each generation has been improving and we’ll be making this selection for the rest of our lives, creating more consistency across the generations.

From a few hundred seeds in 2015, Remembrance Farm grew 2 acres of this new carrot in 2018. From 5 acres in 2019, Nathaniel is currently growing most of his 7 acres of carrots as this new variety, growing Bolero and other carrots as a trial alongside for comparison.

What’s in a Name?

Fruition Seeds released this new carrot in 2019, naming them Dulcinea for their sweetness as well as honoring her roots in the Spanish word ‘Bolero,’ naming her for the muse of Don Quixote. Dulcinea is OSSI-pledged, ensuring Dulcinea (and any other carrots developed with these genetics) will never be patented, remaining in the public domain as a commons we all benefit from.

Dulcinea now grows in gardens, on farms and is being evaluated in trials all across the continent and beyond. We’re excited to share Dulcinea with the world and are equally ecstatic to continue intensive selections with each generation. Countless ancestors, both human and plant, have made this work possible; it is our privilege and pleasure to continue such traditions and cultivate new ones along the way.

New Seeds to Sow

In a world increasingly impoverished by industrial and private interest, Dulcinea is the harbinger of a new paradigm. Collaboration between a market farmer, a seed grower and a public university has created an open-source, organic alternative to one of the world’s preeminent conventional hybrids. And Friends, let’s take this a step further.

As Rowen White, an Akwesasne seed saver, farmer and educator and co-founder of the Sierra Seeds Cooperative says, ‘seed companies didn’t exist 150 years ago. If we do our work well, in 150 years, they won’t need to exist.’

What are the deeper stories of the seeds you sow? Where are they being grown? What are they being selected for? How do those seeds reflect you, your community and our deepest collective values? Which seeds align most deeply with your vision of (y)our farm, of (y)our future? What seeds might you save on your farm this season? Who else is here to accompany you on the journey? (Hint: Don’t be shy!)

We are the Seeds

Indeed, Dulcinea may simply look like a carrot. An orange, tapered carrot. But don’t judge a carrot by its cover: there is so much more to each seed, and each of us, than meets the eye.

Seeds are not as small as they seem.

Neither are we.

Our imaginations nourish the world.

Together, let’s re-imagine the stories we tell and seeds we sow.

Let’s cultivate so much more than carrots!

If you’re also hungry to grow, we’re right there with you.

Sow Seeds & Sing Songs,

Petra, Matthew & the whole Fruition Crew

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