CU-led team aims to develop $100M eastern broccoli industry

Growing broccoli in the eastern United States has been a challenge due to a climate that stresses broccoli and the lack of a coordinated effort between sectors of the industry. As a result, 90 percent of broccoli sold in the east is shipped from California and Mexico.

But now, a Cornell-led team of industry and academic researchers seeks to develop a $100 million broccoli industry on the East Coast over the next 10 years with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The $3.2 million grant, with an additional $1.7 million in matching contributions from participating companies that will work on the project at their own expense, will help develop broccoli germplasm to suit eastern conditions, recruit farmers and organize networks for growers and distributors. Recent developments in broccoli breeding have made plants more tolerant to eastern heat and humidity, a major obstacle to growing broccoli in the East. The project will increase eastern U.S. production from isolated pockets to a regional year-round market for eastern consumers.

The project also aims to develop a more sustainable industry that responds to retailers' and consumers' desires for local products, reduces the high fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions from trucking broccoli from the West Coast and conserves scarce western U.S. irrigation water.

The team includes the USDA, seven other universities and 11 companies, marking a collaboration between industry and academic researchers.

"Our assembled team of breeders, production specialists and market developers have the breeding stocks and expertise to develop an eastern broccoli industry," said Thomas Bjorkman, Cornell associate professor of horticulture and the project's principal investigator.

Other team members include Miguel Gomez, Cornell assistant professor of applied economics and management, who will find cost efficiencies for this industry and work with participating distributors to establish a distribution infrastructure; and Phillip Griffiths, Cornell associate professor of horticulture, who will select broccoli suited to eastern conditions and co-lead regional trials.

Once the right varieties have been developed, seed companies -- working closely with academic researchers -- will produce hybrid seed.

At the same time, extension educators from Cornell and other universities will organize local growers in each region into production networks that can deliver larger amounts with less risk and cost, and will develop production recommendations for them that reflect new varieties, and current economic and environmental conditions.

"We are simultaneously developing a grower base, distribution network and market," said Bjorkman. "Trying to do one part at a time is sure to fail. It is only by having a comprehensive team such as ours that we can make all the parts of the industry work," he added.

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John Carberry