Eastern Broccoli Project partnership leads to promising variety

The Cornell-led Eastern Broccoli Project, which built a broccoli industry on the East Coast worth an estimated $120 million over the last 13 years, has produced a promising new broccoli variety in partnership with Bejo Seeds, a Geneva, New York-based seed company.

The new broccoli variety, now undergoing commercial trials, is believed to produce good, high-quality yields – even under the stress of hot East Coast summers.

“There are many forces at work that underscore the need for East Coast-specific broccoli varieties,” said Thomas Björkman, professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech and director of the Eastern Broccoli Project. “As a result of climate change, West Coast growers are faced with water shortages and rising temperatures, which can cause the head of broccoli to become distorted and unmarketable. Diversifying the production area is important for maintaining food security.”

Bejo USA president Mark Overduin, left, and professor Thomas Björkman.

Improving broccoli’s adaptation to warm night temperatures in East Coast summers was among Björkman’s priorities in the project. Unadapted varieties made distorted heads that were unmarketable. To succeed on the East Coast – where the rising consumption and value of broccoli along with overall consumer interest for locally grown food continues to spark growers’ interest – broccoli needed to be developed for East Coast conditions. Despite global efforts to breed warm-season broccoli, until now little progress had been made.

Björkman found a route for a breakthrough by leveraging his past research on broccoli development, evaluating opportunities and seeking out a transdisciplinary team.

He enlisted the help of Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell AgriTech, to develop a breeding strategy. Because of the complexity of genes that would be needed to produce a successful East Coast variety, Griffiths and Björkman teamed up with Bejo Seeds. To further expand access to advanced broccoli genetic material, Griffiths also worked with Mark Farnham, research leader at the United States Department of Agriculture Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Public-private partnerships add value to vegetable breeding because they provide access to endless trait possibilities,” said Griffiths, also a fellow in the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

The exchange of genetic material, under Material Transfer Agreements, and the development of test crosses between Cornell and Bejo genetics allowed breeders of both programs to evaluate the combining abilities of each breeding line and select those lines that made valuable contributions to vigor and stress tolerance.

The partnership has led to a broccoli variety that is a combination of environmental resistance traits and quality.

“We found this exchange of broccoli genetics among the two different programs very useful, and we all benefited from the exchanges and discussions about breeding directions and philosophies,” said Mark Overduin, CEO of Bejo.

Bejo, Griffiths and Björkman are relying on growers to help maximize commercial trial results this year. Growers are currently able to trial the variety in their own fields by calling Bejo for seeds.

“We are ready to test the best hybrid to come out of this collaboration on a larger scale,” said Jan van der Heide, Bejo’s Northeast market manager. “This experimental status allows us to distribute larger quantities of seed to many growers to give us more information on the adaptability and fit in commercial markets through feedback from many growers in many different microclimates.”

The variety will receive a commercial status and a fitting name once adaptability and commercial fit are confirmed.

“We already know that this variety can take the stresses of a New York state summer and produce high-quality broccoli with good yields,” van der Heide said.  “Maturity will be a few days later than Eastern Crown, another commercial variety, and will be suitable for both crown cuts and bunching.”

This project was funded by a $10 million grant from the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Erin Rodger is the senior manager of marketing and communications at Cornell AgriTech.

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Abby Kozlowski