by Sally Colby
Dr. Tom Bjorkman, professor of vegetable crop physiology at Cornell University’s Geneva research facility, says that most of the broccoli consumed in the United States is grown in California, and that’s because the state’s climate is ideal. Broccoli grows well in the winter in a Mediterranean climate, with cool nights and bright sunny days. Those conditions exist in California, but not in the east.
There are some good reasons to grow the cruciferous vegetable in other areas, and Bjorkman is leading a large, multi-state project on broccoli production in the east to explore new varieties. “It’s an opportunity to expand production in the east, and we have some genetics to support that,” he said. “We had a project running for five years, and recently got funding for an additional five years. The second phase involves more varieties coming to market, which will create more opportunities for growers.”
Bjorkman says that one of the driving forces for the project is that broccoli is becoming more popular. He compares it to the kale boom, and although kale is in the news and has more exposure, broccoli is far more popular and isn’t a fad. Bjorkman believes that broccoli will be even more popular when east coast consumers learn about the superior flavor of broccoli that hasn’t been trucked across the country.
“The project is breeding broccoli with the appropriate genetic traits for the east,” said Bjorkman. “We’re doing regional trials, getting new varieties released and marketed, and there are things coming to the market. We will need a trained grower base to grow the new varieties, then a distribution system that makes it worthwhile to grow the crop.”
Bjorkman describes one of the obstacles in variety development as a chicken and egg thing. “The challenge was that there weren’t a lot of eastern growers,” he said. “The seed companies didn’t care. The east hasn’t been an important market so they didn’t devote any resources to it.” However, once attention was paid to a grower base, interest went up considerably, and now seed companies are working with Bjorkman and his project.
When the project started in 2011, Bjorkman first did a comparison of the five commercial standards, the best that were available at the time. The next step was dedicated breeding work, and Bjorkman reports that research trials indicated positive strides in developing more heat-resistant varieties.
Since the August market is the main focus, Bjorkman is looking for varieties that withstand summer heat. He says that Green Magic was the market leader when the project started, but flower buds for that variety haven’t been uniform and supermarkets will only take it if they’re desperate. “We’re also getting some leafy heads,” he said. “Flower buds aren’t forming fast enough — the leaves make up for it. That’s the challenge, but it’s really a crop failure.”
One variety scored fairly well in flower bud uniformity but wasn’t quite domed enough and developed a flat head, which leads to water collection and brownness. “They need to be able to shed water well,” said Bjorkman. “When it’s warmer, they tend to flatten out a little bit early in the maturation process. That’s another characteristic we’re looking for.” Bjorkman says that Burney, a variety suited for late summer harvest and best for crowns, is uniform and holds up to August heat. One promising September variety is BC1691, which is finely beaded with a dense head and heavy stem.
One of the traits researchers are trying to develop is an extended, or taller head. “The idea was for mechanical harvest,” said Bjorkman. “They’d stick up so the cutting head would go underneath. But having all the heads with the same maturity at the exact same hour is a challenge.” Bjorkman noted that the extended head variety is also good for hand harvest because it’s easier to not have to bend over as far. “You don’t miss as many heads because they aren’t hidden in the foliage,” he said. “The downside is that they sunburn easily because they’re sticking up so high, and deer damage can be a problem.”
When it comes to marketing broccoli on a large scale in the east, Bjorkman says there’s a missing middle in the distribution system. “If you’re doing direct marketing and you want to get bigger, there isn’t an easy distribution system until you get substantially larger,” he said. “A lot of growers have found that the middle part is challenging to get into.”
Bjorkman says most larger buyers don’t want to have to switch from one source to another if they don’t have to, so the idea of year-round, eastern regional production is attractive. “No one location is going to produce broccoli year-round,” he said. “The idea is that different production areas produce during different seasons. There’s currently a big gap in springtime when little or no broccoli is available.”
One of the complaints Bjorkman hears from larger buyers is that they require large amounts of product, and growers can’t always supply what’s required. Food hubs might be a solution to help large buyers attain large amounts of product at one time. “A food hub that draws from multiple growers and a manager who speaks their language will help a lot,” he said. “Every buyer has their own specs. If the stems are a little too long or the product isn’t quite green enough, that’s a problem. The manager of a food hub can understand the buyer and get from the growers what that buyer wants. By having more suppliers, the buying season can be extended. Relationships between food hub managers in various regions can cooperate with suppliers throughout the season. A food hub allows food safety issues to be resolved in one area and then growers can concentrate on growing.”
Prices are highly variable, and broccoli is still dominated by California products being sold at Eastern terminal markets. During shortages or transitions there are spikes, and it’s hard to determine when those spikes will occur. Bjorkman says that despite a variable market, $15/box for broccoli has been the terminal price for a number of years.
Growers who direct-market may have several options available. “Although direct marketing is a very small sliver of the overall market for broccoli, about half of the produce that’s marketed as ‘local’ is direct marketed,” said Bjorkman. “If local is an important feature of what you’re selling, then that’s an attractive channel.”
Is it realistic for growers to anticipate spring broccoli production? Possibly, but Bjorkman says that will require better-adapted varieties for spring. “It’s tough to plant into the cold,” he said. “They like it warm during vegetative growth, so it messes with timing — everything is backwards. Springtime varieties need different adaptation to our climate.” Bjorkman added that broccoli consumption tends to increase after Labor Day and is popular around Thanksgiving, so growers who can extend the season to that point will have a good market.