Jul 16, 2020What does it take to establish an East Coast-based broccoli industry?
That’s the million dollar question. Ten million dollars, in fact, has gone toward solving that puzzle, with the USDA-funded Eastern Broccoli Project begun in 2010.
This month, we’d like to give our community an inside look at one of the major projects going on at Red Tomato, classified under what we call our “Food System Development” work. The “Broccoli Project”, as it is affectionately known by our staff, seeks to establish a sustainable, year-round broccoli industry in the eastern US.
Despite high and growing consumption of broccoli in our region, the vast majority is produced on the West Coast. The climate of the eastern US poses one of the major challenges – broccoli was originally cultivated as a winter vegetable in the Mediterranean. Our summers, with typical nights exceeding 65˚, confuse the plant’s developmental cues, resulting in uneven flower buds and heads. While perfectly edible, it is unmarketable.
But recent developments have created new opportunities and incentives to look seriously at what it would take for a robust East Coast broccoli industry: high transportation costs for West Coast broccoli, increasingly loyal interest in locally grown food, and greater focus on sustainability of supply chains have all created the demand that inspired the origin of this project a decade ago. A strong broccoli industry in our region would result in a local supply of a popular, healthy food for consumers, reduced environmental impact and expense of transportation, and a market for a high-value specialty crop for farmers.
This decade-long endeavor is massive, in funding and in partnerships.
Yet the growing of eastern broccoli is only the first of many obstacles. It is a high-value crop, as a year-round staple in any grocery store, but the journey from field to market is costly to growers in both time and money. Broccoli is incredibly labor intensive, harvested by hand and in need of immediate cooling to stay viable. This requires people, of course, which is especially difficult for farms facing shortages of seasonal workers and adapting to complicated labor laws.
It also requires technology: the cool down process is both an absolutely crucial step in broccoli harvesting and a major barrier for many growers. Broccoli has the highest respiration rate of any vegetable, which not only requires extra effort to cool the product, but causes it to degrade very quickly post-harvest if not properly cared for. Growers must bring the temperature down to below 40˚ within just a few hours, and keep it there until it reaches the consumer. Even if kept cool, dehydration at any point can quickly result in a limp and unmarketable product.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most affordable cooling methods – like spraying with cold water – are the most ineffective, and often inadequate in especially warm weather. “Icing” techniques are the industry standard, but can be extremely costly. Some smaller farms resort to the most basic method of buying bags of ice, shoveling it on top of crops and leaving it overnight. The ideal and more sophisticated method used by larger operations requires staggeringly expensive “slushing” machines, some nearing two stories tall. There is a “no ice” technique some farms may try, but it’s tricky, and many produce buyers will accept only the industry-standard iced product.
That step in broccoli harvest alone is enough to drive smaller, local broccoli farmers out of business.
Growing broccoli in our region has become a severely lopsided competition, with West Coast farms having both the weather and levels of capital to run laps around the kind of smaller, family-owned farms common in the Northeast.
But now, we have new locally-adapted cultivators developed by researchers in the Eastern Broccoli Project, and the previously stated incentives (local interest, transportation cost, sustainability) creating promising demand for a local market. So: what next?
That’s where our team came in. In February 2020, Red Tomato joined a small portion of the project based at Cornell University in New York. Susannah Hinman, Supply Chain Associate, has been leading the way, with Founder Michael Rozyne and Intern Alessandra Cancalosi playing key roles. The cornerstone of Red Tomato’s success in this industry has always been in our channels of collaboration, with strong relationships ranging from food hubs, growers, produce buyers, distributors and more, giving us a unique ability to research the opportunities and obstacles in the logistics/marketing side of our region’s broccoli industry.
Farming any crop is inherently risky and uncertain – growers are quite good at handling the appropriate level of that, and knowing when to draw the line at a risk not worth taking. Broccoli, as mentioned, requires enormous upfront investment in machinery, technology, and labor infrastructure. Farmers need to know that the risks they would take to grow broccoli at a wholesale level wouldn’t be in vain, with market demand and genuine commitment from local buyers ready to turn their crop reliably profitable. While new locally-adapted broccoli cultivars are a huge step forward, the old “if we build it, they will come” wisdom isn’t enough here.
Some interviewees who have taken that leap before shared their stories of investments gone wrong. Much of the regional supply chain theory centers on aggregation and collaboration, which would seem to be a viable solution for some broccoli obstacles, like purchasing one of the high-tech icing machines to be shared among several community members. One food hub our team interviewed took that very expensive plunge, only for their single broccoli grower to make the incredibly painful decision of abandoning his broccoli crop shortly after – unrelenting downward price pressure simply made the kind of effort necessary for his broccoli crop no longer economically sustainable.
The question has then become: what does real marketplace commitment look like? What will it take to get it?
Our team has spoken to buyers who express time and time again a strong interest in local broccoli. But when a grower names their price, stores are often unwilling to budge, with much cheaper West Coast broccoli calling their name. Red Tomato has seen this firsthand: unmovable needs on both the grower and buyer sides of the broccoli equation, with retailers at first expressing interest in a local program, only to soon revert back to a commodity approach. The 10-30 cases we ship from a local mid-sized grower into a single store location must then perform nearly identical cost-wise to that of the global commodity broccoli, shipped in truckload quantities to a central warehouse. Those kinds of deals have become increasingly common, and increasingly impossible to make.
The whole saga may sound a bit sour – but it’s not. There’s genuine hope on all sides of the equation for this to work, and our team members report an inspiring atmosphere of collaboration among their interviewees. Stories of tension, frustration and loss are not those of diametrically opposed forces with scorched-earth attitudes, but the result of the deep and earnest honesty interviewees have awarded us. Our research will help create the matter-of-fact blueprint of our region’s current broccoli industry necessary for a truly sustainable solution to be drawn.
And despite the many pain points in the broccoli industry, this project has been a joy for our participating team members. Growers and buyers alike are eager to share their experiences and insights in pursuit of a common goal. We have the privilege of doing what Red Tomato does best – connecting all sides of the supply chain and fostering collaboration. Ali, a new addition to our team and one of the main interviewers on the Project, says the experience continues to be fascinating: “Broccoli is the kind of basic staple that doesn’t get much attention, but now we’re laser focused on this one product and really seeing every single angle of the industry. From the moment it’s planted to the moment a customer buys it in the store.”
The research phase of the project is wrapping up, and our participation will end later this year. But the overall effort will continue, and the Eastern Broccoli Project leaders have expressed faith that they’ll soon reach their goal of a local industry worth $100 million. Until then – ask about local broccoli wherever you shop.
– Reprinted from Red Tomato. Rooted in fair trade, Red Tomato is a Northeast food distribution nonprofit that strives to bring transparency, sustainability, and equity to every aspect of how we do business.