LAUREL FORK — The Virginia Extension Service’s “Broccoli Field Day” held Aug. 19 highlighted efforts to boost the vegetable’s Eastern Seaboard production. Development is being spurred by an economic climate of higher demand for the vegetable while little is produced in the region.
The five-year effort, funded (by a $1.5 million grant) through the United States Department of Agriculture, is through Cornell University’s “Eastern Broccoli Project.” Information from Project Director Thomas Björkman indicates Broccoli has recently become a major specialty crop worth nearly a billion dollars a year.
The effort has been aided by recent developments including high transportation costs and interest in locally-grown food. Public broccoli breeders recently succeeded in developing locally-adapted germplasm (genetic resources such as seeds and plant tissue) to solve inconsistent broccoli production regionally.
The project’s solution includes plant breeding for quality improvements (taste, color, ease of harvest, disease resistance). Carroll County is one of five regional testing sites to screen performance of plants under a range of East Coast conditions. Other areas participating in the trials are North Carolina, Maine, New York and South Carolina.
According to local grower James Light, whose farm is the local test site for Cornell’s offerings, the blind trials (growers are not told if they are growing new varieties or one’s grown in previous years) will culminate with three varities which work well here. He said some of the ones grown during the last five years have turned out very good, some very badly.
Carroll County Horticultural Extension Agent Suzanne Slack said the Department approached Cornell to extend the trials to a fifth year (with funding). Slack, a new agent, inherited the project this year and even had a hand in grant writing tailored to her area of expertise, plant research.
“There is such a need for broccoli. We could sell so much more,” Slack said. “I think a lot more acres in this area, especially summer broccoli, could help meet the demand. Broccoli doesn’t really like it here, but successful varieties could be extending the growing season all year long on the East Coast. We want to help people make money and the best way is to help figure out what grows best.”
Light and Slack pointed out the costs of vegetable production prohibit growers taking a chance on plants with an unproven local track record.
“There’s always (among growers) a little bit of reluctance to tell others what you’re doing,” said Light. “I though I might as well get involved because I’d be getting information as well as giving it. The first year we had a lot of people show up (on the field day).” He said he hopes to see Cornell do more marketing before a large amount of growers commit to the effort.
Cornell’s plan includes developing a reliable grower base to supply markets, provide extension guidance to new broccoli growers, revise and expand broccoli production recommendations, develop grower networks in different regions to supply a whole delivery window and a set of grower networks that can supply year-round.
Plans also include developing infrastructure for packing, cooling and shipping, support and evaluate retail acceptance and establish relationships on suppliers’ ability to supply promised volume and quality. This would form a regional food network that may serve as a model network for other specialty crops.
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.