3/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent
GENEVA, N.Y. — Broccoli has been in existence for more than 2,000 years.
Originating in the northern Mediterranean, seed was brought to North America by Italian immigrants, but only in the 1920s did it become widely known and grown commercially.
The USDA reports that there has been a steady increase in broccoli sales since the 1980s, when consumers became aware that it is rich in vitamin C, fiber, calcium and antioxidants.
In the 1990s, broccoli became very much a part of many American diets — thanks to its availability as a pre-cut and packaged vegetable and medical research indicating its possible role in cancer and heart disease prevention.
Americans eat on average 8.5 pounds of fresh broccoli per person per year. The demand is high, and steadily increasing.
Chances are that if you live in the eastern United States and purchase broccoli anywhere other than a farmers market, it was grown in California or Mexico, where more than 90 percent of broccoli is harvested.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, California had 416 producers who cultivated 106,271 acres of broccoli, making it a $1 billion crop.
But in the next few years this could change if the Eastern Broccoli Project — a plan to establish a broccoli production corridor running from northern Florida to Maine — continues making the excellent progress it has experienced during its first two growing seasons.
For a production corridor providing local broccoli to the East Coast consumer to become a reality, new broccoli varieties are needed.
“We need varieties which under conditions of summer heat produce consistent supermarket-grade heads. We have already identified some and the breeders are continuing to find more,” said Thomas Björkman, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University and director of the project.
The marketing aspect of this multidiscipline project is also progressing well. The project, which has a goal of establishing an Eastern broccoli industry worth about $100 million by about 2020, is “moving remarkably close to our projection,” Björkman said.
Even though California has done a very good job of providing broccoli for the nation, having a second major production center provides a hedge against threats such as drought and disease, along with reducing transport costs, he said.
Five-year funding for the project, which began in September 2010 and will shortly start its third field season, includes a $3.2 million grant from the USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative and $1.7 million in matching private contributions.
“This was a new funding program that the specialty crop industry championed for the 2008 Farm Bill which has revitalized horticultural research,” Björkman said.
It is different from previous programs in that industry is directly involved in the execution and also contributes financially, which has so far worked well for the progression of the project, he said.
“It is crucial for the 2013 Farm Bill to be passed so that this kind of work for the industry can continue,” Björkman said.
The project team is large, with eight principal investigators, six Extension collaborators and 11 private company collaborators. The universities involved include: University of Maine, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson University in South Carolina, Oregon State and Cornell. Seed companies involved with the project include Syngenta Seeds, Monsanto Vegetable Seeds, Bejo Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Food distributors, like Wegmans, have been on board since the beginning of the project, and grower and grower-shipper companies are also making valuable contributions to progress, Björkman said.
“All the participants are eager, we have a clear plan, we communicate frequently and we have a strong project manager,” he said.
The team, although primarily plant science and horticultural specialists, also includes Miguel Gómez, assistant professor in Cornell’s department of applied economics and management, and graduate student Shadi Atallah, who are studying the important economic and marketing aspects of the project.
The three driving forces behind the initiative are the rising fuel costs for shipping broccoli in refrigerated trucks from California and Mexico to the East Coast; consumer interest in purchasing “locally grown” foods, and increasing concerns about creating a sustainable, diversified food network, Björkman said.
Until now, California and Mexico have had the majority of the broccoli market because growth requirements of the readily available varieties for commercial production and the California climate were well matched for year-round production.
Success of the Eastern Broccoli Project hinges on identifying germplasm suitable for year-round East Coast production. There are three stages to the testing of the breeding stock. Phase I, the initial screening, allows the researchers to examine the material for suitability for East Coast growing conditions. Those that “pass,” move into Phase II the following year and receive more comprehensive evaluation. The candidates that do well in Phase II screening are grown in on-farm strip trials the following year (Phase III).
Regional testing sites have been identified to allow coordinated trials of broccoli breeding stock and new hybrids.
The sites include Charleston, S.C.; Carroll County, Va.; Waynesville, N.C.; Geneva, N.Y.; and Monmouth, Maine.
In the first two years of the project, about 60 new or recent crosses have been evaluated, with the hope of having one or two enter Phase III of the project in summer 2014.
“We measure a large number of parameters in the trials, but the most important criterion is that the varieties make uniform buds on evenly domed heads, even when summer nights are warm and it is humid,” Björkman said.
Several companies released new varieties last year, including DuraPak 16 and DuraPak 18 from Syngenta, and BC1691 and Lieutenant from Seminis. Bejo released a variety, 2863, which is currently being tested in the project trials. New entries are added to Phase I each year, allowing the testing cycle to continue throughout the duration of the five-year project.
“Results so far are encouraging,” Björkman said. “Some of the new hybrid candidates performed as well as or better than the best available commercial varieties.”
On-farm trials with growers are being conducted with the goal of helping producers optimize their production practices and also to develop market channels.
Yields in the East have not always competed well with California producers. Current eastern yields are often about 400 to 450 boxes per acre, using single rows with in-row spacing of about 12 inches,. However, results from research on very productive soils in the Geneva, N.Y., area showed that row spacing of 8 inches could give 600 to 800 boxes per acre of high-quality heads.
Such a yield difference with essentially the same growing expenses would increase profits by several thousand dollars per acre, Björkman said.
Protected culture techniques, such as high tunnels and greenhouses, that are often used for season extension in small-scale production, are not likely to compete with transporting from other East Coast locations, Björkman said.
With this project, he said, broccoli production will move with the season, and the season in each area will be extended by having varieties that produce satisfactorily in the warmer parts of the year.
For the purpose of the planned “broccoli corridor,” the East has been divided into five production areas: Maine, which has cool summers and already produces substantial quantities of broccoli; western New York, which has the potential for high production in the shoulder season; southwest Virginia and North Carolina, which both have potential for summer production for the Southeast; and South Carolina, which currently has a late fall production, but is unable to meet demand.
The goal is to have each region supply their whole delivery season and establish grower networks that would allow the entire eastern region to be supplied by growers in the East year-round.
Gómez has been working on putting together an East Coast network of farmers and retailers. In addition, an infrastructure for packing, post-harvest cooling and shipping needs to be developed.
Having the Virginia Tech Extension team and Extension agent Wythe Morris on board is extremely helpful, as growers in Carroll County have been producing broccoli for Food City grocery chain for a number of years. They provide a model for the larger project with the involvement of many small farms and packing houses in their well-functioning broccoli production scheme. The regional market in Hillsville has a hydrocooler and ice-making facility which is critical for the quick cooling necessary for broccoli.
Some growers are already involved in the project and there will be a greater need as reliable varieties become available.
“As we look ahead, we’d want to first involve growers who are currently selling vegetables to supermarkets, food service distributors or wholesale distributors so that they know the business end of having that type of customer,” Björkman said. “It can be a cut-throat business, so those who know they can make it with other vegetables have a good chance of adding broccoli.”
GAP certification for food safety is going to be essential, since many consumers eat broccoli raw, he said.
The Eastern Broccoli Project is being considered by researchers and a number of growers as a model system that, once developed, can be used as a framework for other crops.
The project has an extensive website that provides information on all aspects of the program and how those interested can get involved, whether as a grower, produce distributor, supermarket or seed company.