Washington tops for carrots

It is difficult to think of a vegetable more ubiquitous than the carrot.

We eat them fresh and drink them as juice. We slice, dice, cube and julienne them. We purée them to make soups and sauces. We steam, boil and roast them. We eat them before we have teeth — and after.

Carrots are as versatile as they are delicious and nutritious. And we can thank Washington farmers for them.

“Carrots are a staple for everything,” said Frank Magaña, a Prosser-based chef who buys his fresh ingredients directly from small Columbia Basin farms. “They are one of the most basic ingredients that go into everything. They’re not sexy, but they are a basic part of cooking and eating.”

When you chomp on a baby carrot, that orange tuber most likely came from California, which has the corner on the fresh market. But when you buy a bag of frozen mixed vegetables, more likely than not the carrots came from the Columbia Basin.

Jim Klaustermeyer Jr. farms 1,800 acres of carrots near Basin City with his father. The carrots he grows are not like those you’ll find at the farmers market. Rather, they are grown specifically for slicing, dicing and freezing.

Klaustermeyer grows a couple of varieties. One is referred to as a “slicer,” and it is used for crinkle cuts and coin shapes. A variety that is harvested later in the fall is a “dicer.” It’s a much bigger carrot — as much as 3 inches in diameter — and is used for cubes and star shapes.

Klaustermeyer, 48, grew up in San Luis Obispo, Calif., before his family moved to the Columbia Basin. After graduating from Central Washington University with an accounting degree, Klaustermeyer joined his father to start a farming operation, and they have been growing carrots for 23 years.

They rent most of the land they use because carrots typically can be farmed on a piece of land only once every four years. They also work with potato farmers to rotate crops.

Klaustermeyer begins planting carrots in early spring.

“It’s a fine seed that is planted shallow,” he said. “We have to have lots of water, so we start planting as soon as it’s available.”

He staggers planting every week to 10 days through early June, then begins harvesting around the third week of July. Depending on when hard frosts begin hitting the region, Klaustermeyer might continue to bring them in right up to Thanksgiving.

On a day in September 2012, Klaustermeyer was harvesting carrots north of Pasco. First, a tractor mowed off the tops of the carrots, then a specialized harvester made in Europe came through and sifted the carrots from the soil. Within 12 hours, they were processed and frozen.

He sends his carrots to Pasco Processing, Hermiston Foods and National Frozen Foods in Moses Lake and Chehalis.

While Washington is No. 1 in the nation in processed carrots, Wisconsin is a not-too-distant second, and California is well behind at No. 3, since its focus is on the fresh market.

Klaustermeyer explained that Midwest states supply the populous East Coast, which is accustomed to eating frozen and canned vegetables.

“We’re a little spoiled out here with having fresh produce most of the time,” he said.

Washington carrot growers have a natural advantage over most states because of the deep, sandy soils and an abundance of water, Klaustermeyer said.

While his main focus is on carrots, Klaustermeyer also is playing around with smaller crops. For example, he grows pearl onions, which often are used in cocktails.

And now he is getting into different colored carrots. After orange, the second-most-requested color is yellow, and that now makes up 15 percent of his production. There also is a small but growing demand for nutrition-packed purple carrots, and he grows 15 acres of them.

“It’s more of a niche deal,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity.”