David Malosh / The New York Times

This year marks the ninth year since the inception of the Eastern Broccoli Project: an industry-funded initiative to raise a brand-new $100 million broccoli industry in the eastern United States.

October 29, 2019

Cornell-led Project Cultivates New $100 Million, Eastern Broccoli Industry

Print More

This year marks the ninth year since the inception of the Eastern Broccoli Project: an industry-funded initiative to raise a brand-new $100 million broccoli industry in the eastern United States.

“This is a project we started about 10 years ago, with the idea that we could develop a broccoli industry across the east coast that delivered broccoli year-round,” said Prof. Thomas Bjorkman, vegetable crop physiology. “So we put together a large team that was able to identify the obstacles in biology and business that have hindered broccoli industry development in the east.”

With a growing demand for locally-sourced produce — and combined with the chance to spur new economic development in traditionally underserved, rural areas — a window of opportunity arose to take the ambitious step of launching an entirely new vegetable market, propelled by funding from the Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

“There is a big interest in locally grown, and particularly, vegetables,” said Bjorkman, who manages the Eastern Broccoli Project. “Customers wanted that, restaurants wanted that, supermarkets were hearing that.”

According to Cornell University’s Department of Agriculture, the eastern broccoli industry is currently valued at around $90 million, and is projected to meet the goal of $100 million in the next year. Bjorkman said that the goal is to have locally-grown broccoli eventually comprise 25 percent of eastern U.S. broccoli consumption.

Bjorkman attributed the quick adoption of broccoli among local farmers to the consistency of its demand, and how it allows operators an avenue through which to easily and effectively diversify their crop rotations.

Farmers “typically are growing several different vegetables. So you can distribute your labor, you can distribute your risk, and work your different market channels,” Bjorkman said. “That’s the kind of vegetable grower that’s likely to add broccoli as part of their mix. And they’re likely to add [it] because every buyer needs broccoli all the time, there’s always a market for it.”

At present, the largest source of broccoli production is concentrated in the coastal valleys of California, which have cool climate conditions conducive to broccoli growth. Western farmers, experienced operators that are among “the most efficient farmers in the country,” pose tough competition, though eastern farmers enjoy a number of geographic advantages, Bjorkman said.

“They are challenged with water supply, which we [the east] aren’t, and the [broccoli] shipping across the country burns a lot of diesel fuel,” Bjorkman said. “They need a pound of ice for a pound of broccoli, and making that ice is energy-intensive. So we’re also looking for opportunities for improved sustainability.”

Even as the eastern broccoli industry plants deeper roots, the process of propelling a product from nascent upstart to profitable industry is a lengthy one, with new research and economic conditions constantly evolving the agriculture market.

“We’ve got a couple more years to go, and we see a lot of new varieties in the pipeline better than those currently in the market,” Bjorkman said. “So the farmers will have more opportunities in the next few years to plant broccoli that will perform reliably for them.”

For instance, a pair of studies published by the team this year identified and exploited certain chromosomal markers in order to perfect a cross-breeding process that results in broccoli that has a “dark green [color]” which appears more “healthy to most people” — and, as a result, stands to boost sales.

The hybrid broccoli is currently being worked on by project scientists, companies and farmers to provide a steady supply of more uniform eastern variants to the commercial markets — such as those close to campus.

“Western New York has substantial potential as a production center, with the climate, access to markets, and the infrastructure that’s already here,” Bjorkman said. “So we’re expecting a lot of growth.”