What is a steckling?
Have you ever wondered what they call the carrot roots that are planted this time of year? In the vegetable seed industry they are called "stecklings."
These roots were planted as seed in the Imperial Valley at the far southern end of California in the fall, where they grow throughout the winter. In early spring, they are mechanically dug up and placed in cold storage for several weeks to simulate winter in a more northerly climate, before being transported to Central Oregon for planting this time of year.
The cold storage, and the cold winter temperatures they simulated, cause the plant to switch from growing a nice plant and root for eating to a plant that is focused on producing a flower and seed for reproduction. If you have left your carrots in the garden over winter to grow the following season, you have seen the plant grow tall the following spring and produce flowers by early summer. If you have thought of eating the root of these carrots, you certainly changed your mind after you saw how tough they have become.
Did you know that carrots get sweeter as you leave then in the ground going into the fall and winter? This spring you might plant enough in your garden to leave part of a row for use later in the year. Put straw over the plants and ground before it gets cold enough to freeze, so you can continue to dig the carrots into winter.
Central Oregon is the largest hybrid carrot seed production area in the world, with over 4,000 acres. We provide about 85 percent of the hybrid carrot seed used in the United States and 65 percent of what is used worldwide. The crop is worth near $20 million dollars per year for Jefferson County growers, and generates approximately $70 million in economic value to the local economy. Seed for the "baby carrots" you buy in the stores almost certainly came from Central Oregon.
So, why do local growers use stecklings when much of our carrot seed is grown from plants grown from seed the previous August? There are several reasons. Although it is more expensive to use roots grown in California, it is like an insurance policy for weaker varieties that may not make it through our colder winters. If seed is in short supply, more acres can be planted from stecklings than seed. It also provides flexibility for the large vegetable seed companies who contract to have the seed grown in Central Oregon, as they can make adjustments in what seed is produced later in the process.
Approximately one-fourth of Central Oregon carrot acres are growth from stecklings, with the majority grown from seed. You will see crews transplanting stecklings into the fields over the next few weeks. Growers hope there isn't too much rain during this process, as muddy ground makes the process more difficult and the equipment they use in the process can compact the soil.