Move over, California. Broccoli Dream Team building East Coast production

ABOVE: Team members evaluate broccoli varieties in Albion, N.Y. From left: Mary Van Ryn, broccoli breeder for Bejo Seeds; Thomas Bjorkman, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University; and Christy Hoepting, extension educator with the Cornell Vegetable Program in Albion, N.Y. (Cornell University photo)

By DARRIN YOUKER
Contributing Writer

ITHACA, N.Y. — In the next five years, a group of crop scientists and seed companies hope to establish year-round broccoli production on the East Coast.

Using a $3.6 million USDA grant, the so-called “Broccoli Dream Team” is researching varieties and growing areas that could support an East Coast market. And some of that production may eventually come from western New York.

High value crop

Broccoli is a high value crop per acre, so I have no doubt that it will make people more money,” said Thomas Bjorkman, an associate professor in the department of horticulture at Cornell University.

Bjorkman is also serving as the manager of the broccoli project, helping coordinate efforts between farmers, seed companies and grocery stores.

Currently, project participants have been experimenting with broccoli types in different growing climates including Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York and northern Maine, Bjorkman said. The hope is those regions, growing the right variety of broccoli, can create a year-round supply of the vegetable for markets and cut down on transportation costs.

California leads

Currently, the mountainous regions of California and Mexico produce the vast majority of broccoli consumed in the United States, Bjorkman said.

There’s a growing demand for the vegetable, but production and transportation costs are driving up broccoli’s price at the grocery store, he added.

“Broccoli is a surprisingly popular vegetable,” he said. “Consumption is climbing and climbing. There is a huge demand out there.”

Most current varieties of broccoli will not grow in the East because the summers are too hot, Bjorkman said. However, places like northern Maine and western New York can help fill in the gaps because of their excellent growing conditions, he said.

At the same time, plant breeders have developed varieties that will produce throughout the summer months, Bjorkman said.

Seed co. cooperation

With those genetic qualities in place, it will be up to seed companies to start producing, he said.

Among Bjorkman’s key duties is to ensure seed companies that there will be a group of farmers who are willing to start growing these new broccolis.

“We need a grower base that would spring up quickly when the seeds are available,” he said. “We need to make a connection between growers and companies.”

Local trials

In places like western New York and the mountainous regions of North Carolina, farmers have been growing test trials of current broccoli types, Bjorkman said. Both are promising growing locations, he said.

Western New York has great conditions for cabbage production, and since broccoli comes from the same plant family, there’s hope that it will thrive there, Bjorkman said.

“They are grown almost the same, and the kids of yields and quality they get are the best in the world,” Bjorkman said of cabbage production. “The opportunity to have high quality, high yield broccoli looks really promising.”

Likes what he sees

Eric Hansen, a third-generation cabbage farmer from Stanley, N.Y., in Ontario County, said he believes that broccoli could become a valuable cash crop for some farmers.

For Hansen Farms, however, broccoli is not in their future. Hansen Farms has 600 acres of cabbage in production, the bulk going for fresh food sales, Hansen said. In order to bring broccoli into the mix, the farm would either have to acquire more land or bring some fields out of cabbage production, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to do it,” he said.

Hansen Farms, however, participated in a test trial, growing a standard strain of broccoli on six acres of ground. The results were surprising, Hansen said.

“Every single one grew great,” he said. “On top of it, we had a real hot year. It got through one of the hottest summers we had.”

Bjorkman hopes that the broccoli team can build on the success of test trials like the ones in western New York. Northern Maine already has a sustainable broccoli growing region, he said. The secret will be to establish other growing areas south of Maine to provide the coveted year-round production.

“The markets these days expect a year-round supply,” he said.

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