Could purple carrots bring the green for N.C. farmers?

by | Feb 17, 2020

Purple carrots may seem like a fantasy right out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a quirky little snack you’d only find by following a white hare down a rabbit hole. They’re no fantasy though. Instead, purple carrots are a reality at some research stations in North Carolina. They’re stars of some serious research to see if they could be a new cash crop for North Carolina farmers.

Purple carrots are actually quite old – even older than orange carrots, according to the World Carrot museum. Orange carrots were first developed and documented in western Europe in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s. The taste comparison is a matter of preference. Some purple varieties have noticeably less sugar, which often makes them taste less sweet.

However, taste wasn’t the top concern when recent research on purple carrots began. There is an increasing market for natural dyes. So researchers are trying to perfect purple carrot growth and figure out if North Carolina could be a major provider of natural purple pigments. NCDA&CS research stations have been sites for that purple carrot growth and research. Possibilities for ways to use the carrots have already expanded beyond the initial idea, so there’s real interest in exploring further.

“[It seems] every month we’re finding new uses for purple carrots,” said Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., with The North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “We’ve definitely kept an open mind. It’s been a pleasant surprise.”

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center works to bring economic development to the state through the life sciences. Ulanch is the executive director of the center’s Crop Commercialization Program. He began seeing potential a couple of years ago, especially after the European Union made new rules about dyes. Natural purple dye from carrots probably wouldn’t help with rare carrot allergies, but it could provide an alternative to synthetic dies, including the controversial Red Dye 40.

Grants propel trials
In 2017, with growth of the natural dye market in mind, NCBiotech contracted with a company called Tidewater Agronomics to do the first small trial in Belvidere. Then they decided to do more trials across the state for the 2019 growing season.

What followed has been pretty exciting for those working on the project. In the past year, the purple carrots have gone from planting, to harvesting, to being pureed for dye. The twitter account for NCBiotech’s Crop Commercialization Program highlighted a few of the steps in quick videos – showing harvesting, blanching and the puree that’s used for the final product.

A grant from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helped make that possible. The department’s New and Emerging Crops Program awarded NCBiotech $113,523 to expand the research after the initial small trial with Tidewater Agronomics. Hoping to test conditions in different soils and climates from the mountains to the coast, NCBiotech chose to do trials at research stations in Waynesville, Clinton and Kinston. More work also continued at Tidewater’s Belvidere site, and The College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at N.C. A&T also grew purple carrots in a hoop house on its Greensboro farm.

The 2019 research went so well, NCBiotech applied for a second grant, and the New and Emerging Crops Program awarded the organization $65,000 for further research in the 2020 season.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had variety trials like this,” Hunter Barrier said about the 2019 research.

Barrier works for the NCDA&CS Research Stations Division as an agricultural research manager in horticulture and as the coordinator of the New and Emerging Crops Program. He said the 2019 purple carrot research involved planting five different carrot varieties – four purple and one orange – on different planting dates. (While purple carrots go back hundreds of years, the varieties used were newer hybrids, not heirloom varieties.) The goal was to figure out which planting time and variety produced the best product for good quality dye.

The North Carolina Food Innovation Lab in Kannapolis evaluated the qualities of each colorant produced to determine which would be best suited for companies to use. Ulanch said six companies have already expressed interest in the purple carrots for dye, food processing or other uses.

The 2020 research will focus on disease management in the purple carrots as well as the economic viability of growing purple carrots in North Carolina – whether they can be grown cost-effectively and whether there’s a sufficient global demand. That research will be cut back to one research station.

Ulanch said if the purple carrots continue to show promise, there could be an effort to get the seeds into the hands of farmers, and NCBiotech would reach out to more companies to see if they have a true ongoing interest in using the purple carrots. If so, North Carolina farmers have the potential to lead the way in producing natural purple colorant for the world. A lot will depend on what the experts at N.C. State and N.C. A&T find in their research.

“We try to translate that research into economic development,” Ulanch said.

He added that while the idea to test purple carrots started with dye, the 2019 research revealed there could be other uses for the carrots too. In addition to dye, Ulanch said there’s interest in selling the carrots for eating just like orange carrots, and there are other food processing ideas that are too preliminary to even reveal.

“[The trials] expanded possibilities, and it opens up markets for potential growers,” Ulanch said.

Those expanded possibilities have Barrier pretty excited too. After all, he said the New and Emerging Crops Program is “all about identifying new opportunities.”

“We want to create operational diversity on the farm and long term sustainable income,” Barrier said. “I’m excited about this. This could create some real opportunity.”

Role of research stations
Ulanch said the research stations were a great resource because everything needed to be consistent across the research areas, and there needed to be confidence that anyone working on the project was well trained also.

“It was very helpful [to have the established research stations] to identify places and multiple resources to get the ball rolling more quickly,” Ulanch said. “We felt very confident they’d be able to do it, and they had experience.”

NCDA&CS research stations were an obvious choice for the work because they can coordinate equipment and people across the state. Researchers from N.C. State are integral to the research stations as well, and they’re a vital component.

“We can test every type of scenario a farmer would encounter,” Barrier said.

He believes the greatest asset of the research stations is the people. Dr. Chris Gunter, Ph.D., led the research in Clinton and Kinston, while Dr. Jeanine Davis, Ph.D., led in Waynesville. Barrier also mentioned Chad Moody in Waynesville, Wesley Hairr in Clinton and Evan Taylor in Kinston who have been important leaders in the purple carrots research.

The research stations are collaborations between NCDA&CS and N.C. State University. There are 18 across the state.