Building a Better Broccoli

Researchers aim to launch an East Coast industry, from seed to supermarket.

Photo: iStock

A couple of years ago, the New York Times conducted a tongue-in-cheek thought experiment aimed at getting more Americans to eat their greens. It recruited a prominent ad agency to give broccoli an “extreme makeover,” applying to that cruciferous vegetable the same marketing acumen it offers major food brands like Coca-Cola. The resulting pseudo-campaign declared broccoli “the alpha vegetable,” dubbed it “43 percent less pretentious than kale,” and suggested that macho men could give bunches of it to each other in the form of a “broquet.”

Thomas Björkman got a huge kick out of the piece—no surprise, since he was spending his days trying to revolutionize the American broccoli industry. An associate professor of horticulture at Cornell’s Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station, Björkman is principal investigator of a project that seeks to turn East Coast broccoli into a $100 million enterprise. The effort launched in 2010 with a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the USDA; the researchers recently applied for an extension, requesting an additional $5.2 million in support. Björkman and his colleagues aim to see 25,000 acres of broccoli planted by 2020—enough to supply between a quarter and a third of what’s consumed in the region—compared with about 8,000 acres in 2007. “It’s a high-value crop,” says Björkman, noting that broccoli can garner $10,000 an acre, some fifteen times the revenue of field corn. “There’s the chance to make a lot of money if you have the right market.”

Field work: Thomas Björkman (Photo provided)

But there’s a problem: broccoli doesn’t like it here. That is to say, East Coast growing conditions aren’t optimal for the crop, which requires nighttime temperatures to drop to the low sixties. Much of America’s broccoli comes from the California coast—particularly the Salinas Valley, known as the nation’s salad bowl—which is blessed with prime soil and a cooling fog. In the East, too-warm evenings impede development of broccoli’s florets; the resulting plants can be yellowish and scraggly, making them unpalatable to consumers. “They taste fine,” Björkman says. “There’s a silly aspect to it, I’ll admit. These are first-world problems: they’re not quite pretty enough. But if you can’t sell them, it’s a serious issue.”

At the Geneva campus, he and his colleagues are testing new varieties of broccoli—both those developed by commercial seed companies and plants cross-bred at Cornell—to find ones that can thrive in the East. Among their aims is establishing an optimal width between rows: too wide and the heads grow too big, too narrow and the plants fail to flower. “We want to know what kind of yield you can get if you really push these guys,” Björkman says, standing in a field on a sunny Thursday before the Fourth of July long weekend. Early summer brought heavy rains to Upstate New York, and the 30-by-250-foot plot that’s now filled with rows of five-inch plants got so water­logged, the seedlings only went into the ground the previous week. “They don’t like wet feet at all,” he notes. “They suffocate. They need oxygen because they’re growing so fast, but if there’s standing water they don’t get it.” Other field trials have been conducted in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maine; the ultimate goal is to grow broccoli year-round, the crop moving up and down the coast with the seasons.

The USDA-funded project, part of the government’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative, is a comprehensive effort that goes far beyond the horticultural angle. Researchers at Cornell and seven other universities are studying shipping methods, cost structures, supply chains, procurement practices, retailer interest, consumer enthusiasm, and other aspects of the industry. “We have learned a lot,” says collaborator Miguel Gómez, an associate professor in CALS’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “We now know that on production costs, we are competitive relative to California. Our costs on a per-box or per-pound basis are a little bit higher, but if you take transportation into account, we are competitive. That was very big news.” The team has even recruited chefs to create novel ways to present broccoli on the plate, in such forms as tempura and coleslaw.

And there’s a viable market for East Coast broccoli: Björkman says the investigators have found strong interest among growers, retailers, and consumers. But they also discovered some challenges to establishing a viable system. For instance, some supermarkets want to receive broccoli packed in ice for optimum freshness; others don’t, because it creates a slipping hazard on the warehouse floor. “There are a lot of large-ish buyers who’d love to buy local broccoli but can’t find anyone who sells it in the way they know how to deal with it,” he says. “And at the other end you have farmers who say, “I could grow more of this, but I can’t find anybody to buy it.’ We’re hearing both of these complaints, and it seems like somewhere we can find a middle ground where they can meet up and work together.”

Gómez notes that the study’s findings aren’t limited to broccoli and could be applied to expanding other crops, such as green beans. Additional benefits of stepping up East Coast production range from conserving natural resources to diversifying growing regions in an era of climate change. And then, says Björkman, there’s the freshness factor. “Broccoli that’s only a day old can be super fantastic,” he says. “We bring it in from our experiments to give away, and it’s common for somebody to say, “Wow, I’ve never had broccoli that good. That was just amazing.’ And “amazing’ is not usually a word that people apply to broccoli.”


Going Green

According to Thomas Björkman and Miguel Gómez, growing more broccoli on the East Coast would save natural resources and have other benefits:

Fuel Shipping broccoli across the country from California (and other growing regions like Mexico) requires tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. Water Because it must be kept between 32 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, every twenty pounds of broccoli is boxed with as much as fifteen pounds of ice when it’s shipped long distances. Trees Because of the ice, broccoli must be shipped in waxed boxes that can’t be recycled; if it’s grown close to where it’s sold, it can be packed in recyclable cardboard. Soil Broccoli can be used in rotation with other crops like potatoes—and because only the tops of the plants are harvested, much of the organic matter returns to the ground. Labor Farmers can plant broccoli to be harvested before and after other crops, like corn, offering longer-term employment for migrant workers. Sustainability Given climate change and the water crisis out West, increasing East Coast production will help diversify the food supply.