A New Breed of Broccoli

1/8/2011 2:00 PM


Academic, Industry Initiative Aims to Establish Regional Crop on East Coast
Maegan Crandall
Central N.Y. Correspondent

GENEVA, N.Y. — The majority of broccoli New York consumers purchase from their grocer isn’t sourced locally. In fact, unless it’s grown right in your back yard, fresh and frozen broccoli is trucked thousands of miles from far-away origins, including Mexico, California and even China.

But according to Thomas Bjorkman, Cornell University associate professor of horticulture and principal investigator for the East Coast broccoli project, those statistics are about to change.

With the help of a $3.2 million grant from the USDA and $1.7 million in matching funds provided by local grocers, distributors, seed companies and farmers, the East Coast broccoli project is aiming to resolve several obstacles over the next five years that have thus far inhibited a regional broccoli crop.

The project is working to develop broccoli germplasm to suit eastern climate conditions, recruit local farmers to grow broccoli crops, and organize a successful distribution system to supply the entire East Coast with year-round, regional broccoli.

Because of the climate and relatively short — yet ideal — broccoli-growing season in New York, it’s essential first for seed companies to collaborate with breeders and production specialists to develop new varieties that will be a sustainable source for the East Coast.

“Something that is a real problem here is when it rains the water will sit in the flat spots on the broccoli and then you get soft rot and the bacteria will go to town,” said Bjorkman. “You need that broccoli dome to stay dome-shaped. If it’s cool, you don’t have to worry about that very much; but it’s not that kind of conditions here, so we’re having to develop broccoli that will grow in that. In the fall it’s fine, but the season is so short.”

The project is aiming for New York — western areas in particular — to produce enough broccoli to participate actively in the market from late August until late October, and then for warmer southern states to fill in the growing gaps, Bjorkman said.

Developing new seed varieties also coincides with locating enough farmers who are willing and able to begin producing broccoli crops.

“We can’t just hand these seeds to a few farmers. You need varieties for those farmers to buy, and those varieties come from seed companies. That means the seed companies need to be selling varieties that have these genes in them and with the small market in the East Coast they aren’t going to be bothered to do the development and marketing when there is a considerable expense involved,” Bjorkman said. “For them to really invest in it they need confidence that there are going to be enough farmers to buy those seeds.”

Fortunately, Bjorkman points out that the project is establishing extension groups and grower groups in various areas to work directly with farmers to determine how growing broccoli crops will impact their profits.

“One obvious pairing is the cabbage growers. They already know how to grow this stuff. Growing broccoli is very similar to growing cabbage. We’ve had some experience and they do very well. So that is some place to start,” he said.

He said similar situations exist where growers already have an advantage either in growing technique, production or geographic location.

“For instance, North Carolina is growing too many tomatoes and they need a rotational crop that knocks down the disease to make their tomatoes grow better,” Bjorkman said. “Broccoli is the perfect rotation crop. There are similar situations in New York where they are not growing a lot of crucifers, where broccoli would be a really good rotational crop because it’s good at controlling soil-borne disease.

“Or maybe they might be really good at handling and distributing produce that needs to be cold and hydrated quickly such as greens. Broccoli would be the same. So if they have systems for doing that they may need to learn how to grow broccoli, so we can provide help there, but they already know how to get it from the field to the store very well and they have all that set up, so that might be the selling point,” he said.

Another important aspect is market development. Having enough growers is important, but organizing distribution and finding regional grocery stores that are interested in buying local broccoli is also essential.

“Right now you can pick up the telephone any day of the year and say, I need three truckloads of broccoli’; it’s very easy to do. It may be expensive sometimes, but it’s no work on the produce manager’s part, so why should they bother trying to source East Coast broccoli when it’s more trouble to deal with other distributors and this time of year it comes from here and this time of year it comes from here,” Bjorkman said. “It would also have to cost less for the grocery stores to be interested unless they could get a real market advantage by selling local broccoli.”

Fortunately, Bjorkman said, several regional grocers are involved and interested, and they see how it fits in their marketing scheme if they know they can get a year-round supply.

“With this project we are learning a whole lot about what that takes. Broccoli is such a high-volume product that it’s almost like there is this infinite demand compared to what we are producing now and the demand keeps rising and rising,” he said. “If you have broccoli, there is always a place to sell it. There’s hundreds of buyers, and if you need broccoli you always have multiple suppliers to get it from — it’s almost a commodity product. That makes it unusual for a vegetable. So for looking at regional food development, it’s a really interesting case study.”

Finally, Bjorkman stresses that once a sustainable regional broccoli source is established, it will make it easier for more opportunities to arise for smaller and specialty growers.

“The new varieties will help anybody who has a market for broccoli, and I think every vegetable grower has a market for broccoli. So if you’re a CSA, if you’re doing farmer markets, if you’re selling to restaurants. ... Fresh, local broccoli is tender, it’s a lot sweeter, it’s doesn’t quite have the sharpness,” Bjorkman said. “There is also one seed company really committed to organic seeds, so organic growers also have the opportunity to expand their markets.”

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