Apr 7, 2016
Research project seeks to jumpstart regional industry

It’s not often that vegetable research gets attention from national media outlets like The New York Times, PBS and NPR. Especially when the subject is broccoli.

But that’s exactly what’s been happening with the Eastern Broccoli Project and its director, Thomas Bjorkman. In the last few years, those major media outlets and others have been interviewing Bjorkman, an associate professor of vegetable crop physiology at Cornell University, and relaying the goals of his broccoli research to the general public.

Bjorkman isn’t quite sure why he’s been getting so much attention from the press. He said the amount of scrutiny has been a “completely new dimension of research” for him and his team. They initially sought attention from the trade press to let the industry know what they were trying to accomplish, but thanks in large part to Cornell’s public relations efforts, local media outlets started picking up on the story. And soon enough, national outfits like The New York Times and PBS came calling.

“No doubt it helps that we keep our message clear and attractive,” Bjorkman said. “It has been great fun working with these reporters, filmmakers, storytellers and other professionals that I wouldn’t encounter otherwise.”

He’s particularly gratified when he hears from those outside of, or even critical of, modern agriculture that the broccoli project addresses some of their concerns. He said that reflects well on agricultural research as a whole.

Mark Zittel, left, and Bjorkman inspect a trial of new broccoli hybrids during a field day in New York’s Eden Valley. Photo: Megan Burley
Mark Zittel, left, and Bjorkman inspect a trial of new broccoli hybrids during a field day in New York’s Eden Valley. Photo: Megan Burley

Timing might be another reason the broccoli project is getting so much attention. Americans now eat 10 times as much broccoli as they did in the 1970s. And even though the bulk of the nation’s broccoli is grown out West, a growing demand for local produce has created an opportunity for Eastern growers. Consumers and retailers want broccoli grown close by. To provide that, however, Eastern growers need varieties better suited to their environments. They also need longer production windows and a more complete distribution network. In short, they need to create a bona fide Eastern industry. That’s where the Eastern Broccoli Project comes in, according to Bjorkman.

Inspired by a call from USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) to find solutions to large-scale agricultural challenges, Bjorkman and a “core group” including USDA’s Mark Farnham and Cornell’s Miguel Gomez and Philip Griffiths teamed up to form the project several years ago. With help from an SCRI grant, they developed a team that included university and industry partners. The emphasis was on breeding new broccoli hybrids adapted to Eastern growing conditions, Bjorkman said.

The climate and variable weather conditions in the Eastern United States have always posed a challenge for broccoli growers. As a cool-season crop, broccoli can suffer structural abnormalities in the hot and humid Eastern summers, and the variable weather can make yield, quality and time to maturity more difficult to predict, according to Bjorkman.

Most broccoli cultivars grown in the United States were specifically developed for California’s more temperate production environments (the state grows more than 90 percent of the nation’s broccoli, according to USDA statistics). But that California-bred broccoli doesn’t grow well in the East, according to Bjorkman.

But thanks to a “breakthrough” in recent years, Cornell and USDA breeders have developed breeding lines that are more adaptable to Eastern climates. Combined with resources and know-how from seed company collaborators, the project is testing new varieties that are showing promise in multiple trials up and down the East Coast, Bjorkman said.

Advantages, disadvantages

Eastern broccoli growers face obstacles, but they also possess certain advantages over growers out West.

One advantage is reduced transportation costs. When fuel prices went up a few years ago, the cost of shipping a truckload of broccoli (about 1,000 boxes) from Salinas, California, to most Eastern destinations rose to about $7,500 (gas prices have dropped lately, but the shipping cost is still the same). Shorter transportation routes in the East have another benefit, as well: a smaller carbon footprint. That’s music to the ears of a lot of retailers and government agencies these days, Bjorkman said.

Yields are lower in the East. California growers produce 800 to 900 boxes of broccoli per acre, roughly twice the Eastern production rate. However, land and water costs are generally cheaper in the East (according to a study, Salinas Valley growers pay about $3,200 per acre on broccoli), according to Bjorkman.

Crop protection and cooling are more expensive in the East, and harvest labor is used less efficiently. Crews out West are so highly specialized that bringing in a lettuce crew to harvest broccoli, for example, would be unthinkable. In the East, labor crews are much more generalized, he said.

Then there’s the distribution network. Most broccoli buyers are used to dealing with large suppliers who send truckload after truckload all day long. That’s much less complicated than buying smaller amounts from multiple, medium-size growers, where the quality of the product can vary greatly and communication can be inconsistent. Bjorkman has talked to Eastern growers who say they can grow a quality crop but can’t find a buyer, and he’s talked to Eastern buyers who want local broccoli but can’t find a grower who can meet their specifications. He and his team are working to close that gap.

Another problem in the East is production gaps. Eastern product is available for only a few weeks here and there, which is a big headache for most wholesale buyers. Having a steady supply would make a huge difference. One of the team’s goals is to extend production windows with better-adapted varieties, he said.

Bjorkman also referred to the “chicken and egg” problem. Since there aren’t many Eastern growers, seed companies haven’t seen much reason to invest in breeding and marketing Eastern broccoli varieties. But that lack of seed has kept the number of growers down.

However, the Eastern Broccoli Project has partnered with a few seed companies that are willing to invest in an Eastern industry. Those companies have spent a considerable amount of money breeding new varieties in the last few years, he said.

Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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