I first got to know broccoli up close and personal in 1981, when I was an Extension Vegetable Specialist working with county agents and growers conducting broccoli variety trials throughout North Carolina. Back then, Takii and Sakata were the primary purveyors of varieties. I remember Green Comet, Green Valiant and Premium Crop.

Back then, we were packing two to three broccoli stalks that weighed roughly 1.5 lbs. with so many bundles to a wax fiberboard carton with slush ice in the carton.

At the same time, I was using broccoli as a double crop in my research on plasticulture. People certainly knew collards, but they would ask me what vegetable this was that we were testing. Thus, the dream began.

Enter Carson Barnes of Barnes Farming Corporation. Carson farmed 2,000 acres of sweet potatoes. Big growers usually don’t just put their foot in the bath water – they jump in. Carson caught broccoli fever and said that we were going to put California out of business. I admit I wanted to put the brakes on and slow the truck down – but Carson was pedal to the metal.

He built some excellent facilities for growing broccoli transplants in Styrofoam containers; the quality of plants was excellent. He bought transplanters and slush ice makers and already had the labor so off we went. Things were looking good; he had the marketing channels worked out.

I don’t know if Carson thought the broccoli growers in California were going to roll over and play dead because we were growing broccoli in North Carolina. Lesson number one when you challenge large packers and shippers: You had better be ready to hang on to your hats. They will run a product at a loss to see if you have staying power. Maybe Carson was hoping that the freight differential would be his ace in the hole. Fuel prices might be his saving grace.

The broccoli we harvested looked good and the packing was going smoothly until we put ice into a non-waxed fiberboard carton (which Carson used for his sweet potatoes). I don’t know how we made that mistake. Maybe Carson was trying save a buck and my memory is fuzzy on this issue. Buyers wanted to see ice on the top of the cartons to ensure that the temperatures in transit were correct and a quality product was delivered.

It was a good effort, and we learned a lot, but Carson went back to concentrating on sweet potatoes. I still believed that broccoli could be grown on a large scale on the East Coast.

Enter Dr. Thomas Bjorkman, Department of Horticulture, Cornell University, known as the “Broccoli Man.” Tom put together a project to develop an eastern broccoli industry – like overlaying California on the East Coast. The project team includes researchers from several universities, private companies and USDA as well as commercial participants in the production, distribution and marketing businesses.

The overarching goal of the project is to create a year-round supply of quality, eastern-grown broccoli. This is a partnership of the public and private sectors, serving both big and small growers.

Despite high and growing consumption in the Eastern U.S., very little is produced in this region – over 90% is produced in California. According to Tom, several recent developments have created an opportunity to correct that disparity. High transportation costs, interest in locally grown food and sustainability assessment have all created demand for Eastern broccoli production. Moreover, public broccoli breeders have recently succeeded in developing locally adapted germplasm to eliminate the obstacle that current broccoli varieties do not produce a consistently marketable product in the East.

Dr. Elsa Sanchez of Penn State with a student and broccoli from Penn State’s broccoli variety trials. Photo by Bill Lamont

According to the project’s website, they propose to provide a solution to the problem by addressing each of the seven barriers to success:

  1. Using germplasm from the public and private sectors, breed for quality improvements (taste, color, ease of harvest, disease resistance) desired by East Coast growers and consumers.
  2. Establish regional testing sites to screen performance of new material under a range of East Coast conditions. Identify breeding lines with potential for further development and elite lines for release.
  3. Release varieties that extend the growing window and increase quality and yield.
  4. Produce sufficient hybrid seed of new commercial varieties. The process includes identifying hybrid-specific techniques to obtain high seed production as well as contracting seed production to match expected demand.
  5. Develop a reliable grower base to supply markets. Provide Extension guidance to new broccoli growers. Revise and expand broccoli production recommendations. Develop grower networks in different regions that can supply a whole delivery window and a set of grower networks that can supply year-round.
  6. Establish a distribution system. Identify and develop infrastructure for packing, cooling and shipping. Connect distributors with supplier networks and wholesale customers, building on existing networks. Begin by testing with small volumes from a few source regions, ultimately supplying all year.
  7. Foster and evaluate retail acceptance. Assess Eastern consumer acceptance of appearance variation and willingness to pay for locally grown attribute. Test market to establish relationships with suppliers and build confidence in ability to supply promised volume and quality.

The Extension component focuses on developing grower networks in five eastern growing regions that together can produce a year-round supply of fresh broccoli. Recently developed pockets of broccoli production include western New York, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These areas complement established broccoli producers in Maine, South Carolina and Florida. Several growers in each new region began test-producing broccoli back in the 2012 growing season.

The project team has identified post-harvest handling, principally cooling infrastructure, as a strategic limitation. Their new crop budgets revealed that cooling is a large and highly variable cost for Eastern growers. Scale- and season-appropriate technologies are being investigated, with an eye on changing retailer attitudes toward ice and tighter food safety requirements during post-harvest handling.

The profitability of broccoli relative to other vegetables depends a great deal on the yield. In the East, broccoli has often been raised on lighter soils with yields reported in the range of 400 – 500 boxes/acre. It has also been raised in market garden situations at low populations that produce low yields and heads that are larger than the wholesale market standard. Field trials have shown that the region’s most productive soils have the capacity to yield over 600 boxes/acre if the population is high enough and matched to the conditions.

According to Tom, comprehensive Extension programming focused specifically on broccoli is being developed to educate growers about production practices and to make brokers more aware of the market potential. Education sessions covering broccoli production have been part of annual vegetable grower meetings in participating states.

In the first year of the project, Extension leaders updated regional broccoli production guides, including information on currently registered pesticides as well as knowledge gleaned from current producers and collaborating investigators in other states. Region-specific content is being developed on production season, new varieties and integration into existing crop rotations and production practices.

You can contact me with feedback on my columns or ideas for future columns at wlamont@psu.edu.