WAYNESVILLE — Purple Carrots sound like something straight out of the creative mind of Dr. Seuss. But they might just become North Carolina’s next signature cash crop.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Crop Commercialization Program (CCP) – which coordinates new, high-value crop research in the state – originally dug up the market opportunity, so to speak. It began investigating the potential of purple carrots a couple of years ago.

Assisted by a recent $113,523 grant from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (NCDA&CS) New and Emerging Crops program, CCP has sponsored trials to grow this distinctive vegetable in three areas of the state. The results are promising, according to CCP Project Administrator Sarah Frank. So the march toward a carrot of a different color continues unabated.

Don’t you want to know why?

A color to dye for

Almost all carrots grown in the U.S. are of the orange variety you see in your local grocery store. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the color purple brings with it some unique benefits. These carrots can be used to make natural dyes and food colorants, as well as a variety of food products.

Combine a cool look with coloration possibilities, and you just might have a highly marketable product on your hands.

Carrot field at Mountain Research Station in Waynesville

Not that purple carrots are a new phenomenon. In fact, the familiar orange carrot is actually more of a newcomer. Pretty much all carrots used to be purple, yellow or cream colored, at least until the 16th century.

“The modern orange carrot was developed and stabilized by Dutch growers in the 16th century, evidenced from variety names and contemporary art works,” according to the British World Carrot Museum. “A tale, probably apocryphal, has it that the orange carrot was bred in the Netherlands in the 17th century to honor William of Orange. Though the orange carrot does appear to date from the Netherlands in the sixteenth century, it is unlikely that honoring William of Orange had anything to do with it. Some astute historian managed to install the myth that the arboriculturist’s work on an unexpected mutation was developed especially to give thanks to King William I as a tribute to him leading the Dutch revolt against the Spanish to gain independence from Spain. There is no documentary evidence for this story.”

CCP became interested in purple carrots when a variety of new market opportunities began surfacing. Regulators in Europe are beginning to discourage the use of synthetic dyes, for instance, creating a growing market for natural pigments. And there just aren’t many global suppliers of purple carrots. “So we saw the potential to create a competitive advantage in North Carolina,” Frank said.

Testing began in 2017

After an initial small trial in 2017, CCP chose three geographically diverse areas of the state for more comprehensive carrot testing during the 2019 growing season. They included Waynesville (mountains), Kinston and Clinton (central NC), and Belvidere (Tidewater region).

Chris Gunter, Ph.D., who is director of graduate programs for Extension Vegetable Production at North Carolina State University, has led the research in Kinston and Clinton. Jeanine Davis, Ph.D., an associate professor and another extension specialist at NC State, is in charge of the Waynesville project. And Tidewater Agronomics, a private contract research and consulting firm that serves farmers, handles the Belvidere test site.

The North Carolina Food Innovation Lab, an NC State research lab and certified manufacturing facility opened in November in Kannapolis, manages quality testing for the project. The lab is specifically testing for anthocyanin, the purple dye, and its quality and quantity. The purple coloration from carrots is different from, say, beets or purple sweet potatoes, because each crop will produce various types and quantity of anthocyanin.

The goal of the trials, Frank said, is to determine when and where the carrots will grow best, and which locations will provide optimal commercial opportunities. A year-round growing season would be ideal, and it may even be possible in North Carolina.

Data collection on purple carrots.

A couple of harvests have been completed at each location, with one or two more to go. Frank said five varieties of carrots – four purple and one that’s orange for control purposes – are planted and replicated at each site.

The biggest challenge has been an overabundance of rain this past summer, particularly in the sandy-soiled central NC area. But Frank said the carrots produced so far have been of good quality, with the desirable purple color.

“We’re encouraged by the results of the tests to date,” said Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., executive director of the Crop Commercialization Program. “This is a product we believe we can successfully grow in North Carolina, and one that can provide a lot of potential for farmers and processors.”

Hunter Barrier, agricultural research manager-horticulture and the new and emerging crops initiative coordinator with the NCDA&CS, agrees with Ulanch.

“Exciting opportunity for NC agriculture”

“The New and Emerging Crops Program is an exciting opportunity for North Carolina agriculture,” said Barrier. “The mission of this new grant program is to identify potential new crops, value-added products and agricultural enterprises and then provide the agricultural research, marketing support, and grower education necessary to make these crops and products commercially viable and profitable for North Carolina producers.

“Projects such as the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s ‘Feasibility of Purple Carrot Production’ will generate research data and develop collaborative partnerships that will provide North Carolina producers with access to new markets and income opportunities.”

The next big step is to analyze all the data from the research and make it available to Agricultural Extension offices, producers and the industry. CCP regularly posts progress reports on social media.

The Program has generated interest from at least six companies in several different specialty areas – including North Carolina-based SinnovaTek and Yamco, which have conducted their own tests. SinnovaTek is based in Raleigh and Yamco is headquartered in eastern North Carolina’s Green County, in the community of Snow Hill.

NCBiotech’s Sarah Frank washing purple carrots.

SinnovaTek & Yamco processed a portion of the purple carrot harvest from each of the research locations at the SinnovaTek pilot lab in Raleigh. The carrots were blanched and then processed into a puree that was run through SinnovaTek’s microwave system.

The economic potential of the purple carrot market is not yet clearly defined. Recent reports on the global natural food colors industry alone estimate an annual growth rate of 7% over the next several years. About 37% of that growth will come from the United States. Those involved in this project want North Carolina to be at the forefront of that potential.

“The mission of the NCBiotech Crop Commercialization Program is to focus on opportunities that increase North Carolina farmers’ profits and strengthen the state’s agribusinesses to support rural economic development,” added Ulanch, “and purple carrots certainly are a crop that may accomplish this.”

Added Frank, “It feels like we’re finding new uses for purple carrots every month. We’ve broadened our expectations from where we started, and we’re optimistic about the project’s success.”

So if you live in North Carolina and you’ve never seen a purple carrot, you may not have to wait much longer. In the next few years they could join sweet potatoes and Christmas trees as iconic, high-value growth opportunities for rural North Carolinians.