November 1, 2010

Cornell Leads Broccoli ‘Dream Team’

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Cornell will be part of a “dream team” of seven other universities and eleven companies that are aiming to expand the current $7 million east coast broccoli industry into a $100 million industry in the next 10 years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted $3.2 million toward the Cornell-led project, which will develop and market a strain of broccoli that is suitable to be grown on the east coast.

Currently, 90 percent of the east coast’s broccoli supply must be shipped from farms primarily located in Mexico and California. According to Prof. Miguel Gomez, applied economics and management, 75 percent of the fresh broccoli consumed by the United States is produced in California. This geographic concentration could be devastating to the broccoli market if a natural disaster were to occur in that state.

According to Prof. Thomas Björkman, horticulture, broccoli production has generally been unsuccessful in eastern U.S. because the heads develop unevenly, rendering them unfit for sale.

Mark Farnham, a South Carolina-based research geneticist specializing in plants, recently developed a strain of broccoli that can both withstand the heat of summer on the east coast and produce heads suitable for sale. This advancement, as well as the east coast’s economic need for its own broccoli supply, prompted the formation of the project.

The project will help the environment as well as the economy, the researchers said.

Diesel used to ship broccoli cross-country, from the western producers to the eastern consumers, contributes a sizeable amount of pollution. By growing broccoli closer to the location that it will be sold, the broccoli industry has the opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint, Björkman said.

Rising fuel prices also may render the transportation of broccoli from one coast to the other unprofitable. By moving the production of broccoli to the east, there will be an immense decrease in the transportation price of broccoli, which will allow for more revenue to be yielded from the crops, Gomez said.

“Currently it costs about $7,000 to ship a truck containing over 30,000 pounds of broccoli and the ice necessary to keep it chilled. We expect that we could cut that cost in half and have more broccoli and less ice in each truck,” Gomez said.

Researchers also believe that, by reducing the transportation process, they will be able to produce a more satisfying broccoli crop.

“We believe that the product will be more tender, with better flavor and possibly higher nutritional value,” Björkman said.

While one division of the project will be focusing on commercialization of the broccoli hybrid that has been developed by research geneticist Mark Farnham, the other component of the project will focus on producing hybrids that are even more compatible with the local climate.

“Part of the project is to develop and test between public and private companies and potentially develop new hybrids more adapted to east coast growing regions,” Prof. Phillip Griffiths, horticulture, said.

Shady Atallah grad, a student involved in minimizing the transport cost of broccoli from the growing site to the retail location, said, “I would definitely be interested in seeing how the new varieties will be adopted by growers and accepted by consumers, as well as how profitable and sustainable the industry will be ten years from now.”

Original Author: Kayla DeLeon