A movement has begun to increase broccoli’s presence on the East Coast.

Project looks to expand East Coast-grown broccoli

Courtesy Cornell

This is one of the new public breeding lines bred for improved performance for East Coast summer broccoli production.
A private and public partnership has breeders studying ways to expand eastern broccoli.

Through a public-private partnership, fueled in part by a $3.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant, researchers at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., are studying ways to develop varieties, expand grower production and build distribution systems for regional production.

Hoping to take advantage of local/regional produce demand, major seed companies, such as Syngenta and Monsanto, grower-shippers and regional supermarket chains are collaborating with a team of USDA/university researchers on East Coast broccoli.

Thomas Bjorkman, associate professor of vegetable crop physiology in the horticulture department at Cornell’s Geneva, N.Y., campus, said specific varieties are needed to help growers with short seasonal windows to offer a more consistent supply.

While California grows approximately 25,000 acres, acreage numbers from Maine to Florida are difficult to determine; Bjorkman estimates eastern growers plant several thousand acres. They’re responding to increased demand, however, and several growers are increasing production by 100 acres.

“This project will provide growers better varieties so they can extend their season and reduce their risk,” he said. “To get the whole market going, having a year-round supply with the quality the retailers need and expect, will be a lot easier for everyone on the supply end.”

Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos. Inc. has grown broccoli in Florida and Georgia since 2002, gradually increasing acreage. The grower-shipper has been working on a year-round program by beginning production in Virginia and the Carolinas to fill the summer gap after winter Georgia and Florida production, said Adam Lytch, operations manager.

One barrier to increasing eastern acreage involves infrastructure cost of operating cooling and icing operations, facilities not generally found in most Southeastern operations, he said.

Lytch said seed companies traditionally haven’t focused on the East Coast, with challenges including varying maturities and high humidity.

Project looks to expand East Coast-grown broccoli

Courtesy Cornell

Researchers and growers are studying ways to expand East Coast production of broccoli.
Evaluating broccoli varieties in Albion, N.Y. are Mary Van Ryn (left), a broccoli breeder for Bejo Seeds Inc., Oceano, Calif., Thomas Bjorkman, associate professor of horticulture Cornell University in Geneva, N.Y., and Christy Hoepting, extension educator with Cornell's vegetable program.

“Where we used to get kind of dinged on prices versus California, that’s not really happening anymore,” Lytch said. “We have proven our weight and proved we can deliver our quality. In the past, we wouldn’t say as much for the East Coast. Freight will continue to go up, but the freshness of the product and lower delivery costs will make a big difference.”

Lytch said the freight differential for retailers buying East Coast vs. California product can be as high as $5 a box depending on destination.

Smith’s Farm Inc., Presque Isle, Maine, has been growing broccoli since 1982, now shipping about 2 million 20-pound cartons a year from 4,000 acres in Maine and 800 acres in Florida.

Owner and partner Emily Smith frowns on the government-funded effort to expand broccoli production.

“We have been in this business a long time, spending our own money and hours on varieties that work on the East Coast,” she said. “It’s just frustrating as the government is trying to cut your legs from beneath you. We don’t need the government working against us. We can’t decide how much our taxes will go up, but if they can cut out some of this unnecessary competition, they shouldn’t take market share away from us.”

Growers including Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., and Hansen Farms LLC, Stanley, N.Y., as well as supermarket chains including Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Rochester, N.Y., and Hannaford Bros. Co., Scarborough, Maine, are involved in the project.