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Eastern Broccoli Project on track to meet $100M goal

Thomas Bjorkman, professor of horticulture poses with an heirloom style broccoli that he is researching to understand the multitude of broccoli genes available for breeding purposes.

Thomas Bjorkman, professor of horticulture poses with an heirloom style broccoli that he is researching to understand the multitude of broccoli genes available for breeding purposes. Photo: Allison Usavage/Cornell University

By Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell Chronicle [2019-10-17]:

The Eastern Broccoli Project began in 2010 with the goal of growing a $100 million broccoli industry in the Eastern U.S. in 10 years. Currently, the industry is valued at around $90 million and, with two remaining years of funding, Cornell researchers say they are on schedule to meet their goal.

“I think we’re going to hit it,” said Thomas Björkman, Cornell professor of horticulture and the project’s principal investigator.

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of New York state broccoli farms increased from 290 to 535, and the number of Eastern Seaboard broccoli farms doubled. Yet about 85% of the broccoli consumed annually on the East Coast is shipped from California and Mexico, even with widespread enthusiasm for locally grown foods.

One challenge of growing broccoli in the East is that the plant was originally cultivated as a winter vegetable in Mediterranean climates, so trying to grow it in the Eastern U.S. summer – when summer nights exceed 65 degrees Fahrenheit – ends up confusing the plant’s developmental cues.

At such temperatures, the flower buds and heads often grow unevenly, and while perfectly edible, do not look the same as West Coast broccoli. “It’s not at all marketable; you would never see it in a store,” Björkman said.

This year, two new papers clarify issues that should further help to grow the Eastern broccoli industry.

The first paper, a marketing study, “Produce Buyer Quality Requirements to Form an Eastern Broccoli Industry,” was published in the Journal of Food Distribution Research in March.

In the study, the authors – including Philip Coles (MS ’15), professor of practice in the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University; Miguel Gómez, associate professor at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and Björkman – surveyed a group of influential wholesale buyers (those who buy on behalf of supermarkets and are the gatekeepers of quality standards, as opposed to consumers) to gauge whether a growing appetite for local foods might outweigh the fact that Eastern broccoli looks a little different from Western broccoli, which is the industry standard. Though Eastern-adapted varieties are still of high quality, they can have a lighter color or larger flower buds than West Coast varieties.

At the same time, sales of local foods increased from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, according to Packaged Facts, a food industry research firm.

Read the whole article.

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