What goes around comes around, at least when you're talking colored carrots.
Colors we're talking about as "new" today, in most cases are actually the original colors, says Phil Simon, breeder and plant geneticist for the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wis.
A rainbow of colors in the carrot category go back more than 1,100 years, he says.
Orange carrots weren't reported until the 1500s in Southern Europe.
Colored carrots, however, are common around the world, and are only a rarity in North America.
Producing them in the U.S. isn't as easy as grabbing a handful of seeds from Turkey or India and plopping them into the ground here, since they don't easily adapt to the U.S. growing environment.
"We've been breeding the old, foreign, novel-colored carrots to our best-tasting, best-growing orange carrots with the idea of breeding colored carrots that are adapted for U.S. growers, and taste good," Simon says.
He began his career 35 years ago with the objective of improving the flavor of orange carrots.
"Along the way, I got distracted and thought it would be interesting to look at some of the old yellows, purples, reds and whites that are around the world and see what we could learn from them," he says.
Some seed companies first showed interest in colored carrots in the 1990s, he says.
"My work involves asking the question 'What will carrot growers and consumers need 20 years from now, from the standpoint of genetics,'" he says.
Today's colored carrots were not developed in a lab.
"They're all naturally-occurring variations that some of our ancestors picked up on when they were growing the crop," Simon says.
If carrot grower Ron Gleason has anything to say about it, Simon will be breeding carrots that are nutritious -- and taste good. Gleason, president of Hillside Gardens, which has locations in Bradford, Ontario; and Reidsville, Ga., has been growing colored carrots for the past 10 years.
After a bumpy start, Gleason says he was ready to abandon the project for lack of buyers.
"But I changed my mind, and the third year it started to build some momentum," he says.
Sales have improved significantly, especially over the past three years. Gleason estimates his colored carrot crop is now four or five times the size it was 10 years ago.
Colored carrots account for about 8% of the acreage at Hillside Gardens, which also grows orange carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower and a line of organic greens such as broccoli, kale and spinach.
Colored carrot yields are less than conventional orange, so they typically sell at retail for a premium of 75% to 110%.
"They don't drive our volume, and they don't necessarily drive your business in a large way, but they do drive marketing," he says. "It is something that opens doors to other sales you are trying to drive."
Gleason says colored carrots are showing up on TV cooking shows and more frequently in restaurants, prompting consumers to try them at home.
Photos by Pamela Riemenschneider and courtesy of Hillside Gardens, with reporting by Tom Burfield.