Farming Producer

Why Organic is Best When it Comes to Christmas Carrots & Parsnips

15th November 2021

While a turkey, ham or nut roast are the first-thought when Christmas menu planning, it’s likely you’ll next think of delicious vegetable sides.

Roast carrots and parsnips make an appearance on Christmas tables most years. However, these popular vegetable’s origins and sourcing are typically overlooked. Have you looked into who the producers are, or wonder what difference organic growing makes? The following might make you think differently about the parsnip on your fork come December 25th. 

One such producer is RBOrganic, at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. We spoke to their team to learn more about the journey from seedling in the ground, to wildly delicious vegetables on your plate. 

While 2021 has been a cracker year for RBOrganic’s crops, it follows a difficult two seasons – both weather and pests taking their toll. Which is why they’re excited to report crops have been “excellent” this year. 

Henry Brown, whose family’s history is tied to RBOrganic (his grandfather was a founder of its parent company, Russell Burgess Ltd), has shared the process from field-to-fork, the ways they partner with local insects and wildlife and just why slow-grown is best.   

Before anyone even thinks about fairy lights and Christmas trees, RBOrganic are busy preparing fields and plugging crops in March. “The farmers prepare a good fine seed bed (often the soil will be de-stoned before planting) to make sure the carrots can grow straight & true, & the roots can find water,” explains Brown.

Early crops are drilled in, and kept under polythene to give them a fighting chance against any late winter weather. More crops are sequentially drilled in, which means you can enjoy most RBOrganic produce from June, all the way to Christmas. 

For the next few weeks it’s all about keeping weeds at bay – ensuring the crop isn’t competing for water or sunshine. Brown says a good water supply is key to growing their carrot and parsnips: “Irrigation on a lot of carrot land is a necessary and expensive investment.” 

Then, there’s pest control. “Being organic the risk of attack from pests is always higher than conventional crops, so the growers have to guard against the risks, though sometimes infections can occur in just a few days to ruin many months of hard work. Our farm team backed up by the agronomists are kept busy and have to be alert 24/7,” says Brown.

One way they control aphids, is by encouraging populations of ladybirds. They do this by leaving field margins growing with ladybird-preferred cover crop. Naturally, the local bird populations at Houghton Hall also benefit from seeding plants in these margins. “Houghton is particularly proud of its populations of the rather rare, shy, Grey or English partridge,” says Brown.

RBOrganic’s approach to pest control, biodiversity and soil health is far from formulaic. “We are always learning how to better protect the crop and the farm and our other organic growers will meet up regularly and discuss best practices and trial new innovative crop husbandry,”  explains Brown. 

Once the crop has reached maturity, it’s mechanically lifted from the soil. Harvest machines can pull up to 25 tonnes of carrots and parsnips per hour. Amazingly, these can be in your Farmdrop delivery approximately 2 days from field to fork. 

While all of these processes and preparations make for beautiful, high quality carrots and parsnips – some are out-graded once harvested. But there’s no waste here, “We try to utilise the whole crop,” says Brown. Some will be peeled and used in food manufacture, carrots can be juiced, and, “the poorest part of the crop may go to organic cattle feed.” 

There’s a farm-wide soil strategy in action once the crop is harvested. It’s a practice called crop rotation – and on this farm, it’s a seven-year cycle. The cycle includes alternating grass for grazing cattle and sheep, cereal crops, potatoes, and of course carrots, parsnips, onions and cylindrical beets. This improves the soil’s structural quality, as each of these cycles encourages a variety of root systems (shallow and deep) into the soil. 

Throughout the seven year rotation, essential nutrients are recovered, earth worm populations thrive and compaction avoided. Overall, it means the farm can grow the produce you love, year-in-year-out, without exhausting the soil and negatively impacting the local Norfolk ecosystem. 

And that, in short, is how your perfect pureed parsnip, or caramelised carrot is grown! So what will Brown be serving on Christmas day? “Organic Carrots and parsnips roasted around the turkey, goose, or cockerel.  Alternatively a carrot and swede mash can be very tasty.” 

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