RICHMOND, Va. — A cool microclimate in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains has allowed farmer James Light to grow broccoli in quantity enough to supply a small chain of supermarkets.
Along most of the East Coast, however, the broccoli piled up in produce crispers has traveled thousands of miles from the West Coast in refrigerated trucks, typically at a cost of $6,000 a tractor load.
A team of researchers and agricultural agents hopes to take a bite out of the West Coast's $1 billion broccoli monopoly with new strains of the vegetable designed to withstand the East Coast's heat and humidity. They've received a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $1.7 million in matching private contributions to create a broccoli corridor running from northern Florida to Maine.
Their work has been driven by the rising cost of fuel to ship crates of broccoli from California fields to East Coast grocery coolers, the "eat local" movement and concerns about creating a sustainable, diversified food network.
U.S. consumption of broccoli has nearly doubled in the past 25 years, with Americans now eating 8.5 pounds annually of the vegetable celebrated for its high levels of vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants. Nearly all of that comes from California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"And they do an excellent job," said Thomas Bjorkman, one of the lead researchers and associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University. "But with the demand for locally grown and rising transportation costs, that really creates an opportunity for Eastern production."
East Coast proponents aim to capture a $100 million share of the broccoli market in five to 10 years.
"We're not attempting to put California out of business. We just want a piece of the action," said J. Powell Smith, a South Carolina extension agent who is lining up growers in his state. South Carolina farmers currently devote about 1,000 acres to broccoli.
But Smith said it won't be easy to compete with established, proven growers in California, as well as Arizona.
"In order to do so, we want to produce a product that is equal in quality if not superior," he said.
Broccoli suffers under constant hot temperatures and humidity common to the Southeast, developing "cateye" – a polka-dot pattern of discolored buds. Stores reject batches of broccoli that aren't properly shaped or a deeply colored green, and they want a reliable supply system.
"If you cannot deliver year-round, you're going to be a bit player," Bjorkman said. "It's really going to take improved varieties to stretch the season."
The West Coast dominates because it has the cooler nighttime temperatures and climates broccoli needs and vast areas of farmland to keep the vegetable growing all year.
"A long stretch of California, from the north-central valley to the desert has been able to produce broccoli year-round by shifting production north and south," said Mark H. Farnham, a broccoli breeder in South Carolina. "We believe it can be done up and down the East Coast."
Miguel Gomez, an assistant professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, has been helping put together an East Coast network of farmers and retailers. Along with saving money, Gomez said creating second major production center for broccoli provides a hedge against threats such as drought, disease and bioterrorism.
"When you look at a food system that depends on a single area, that is extremely risky," he said. "It's good to diversify."
It also saves money. Shipping 10 tons of broccoli from Salinas, Calif., for instance, runs about $6,000 and adds 20 cents to 25 cents per pound to the vegetable's cost, Bjorkman said.
The Western Growers Association, which represents growers in California and Arizona, declined an Associated Press request to comment on the East Coast initiative.
While researchers expect the East Coast network to include areas where broccoli is already grown on a small scale, they also hope to grow new varieties in places broccoli hasn't been planted before. They've been recruiting farmers to test the new varieties at the same time they're trying to convince current growers to increase their acres and developing regional distribution hubs.
They're working with farmers like Light and retailers like Kevin Semones, manager of the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market in Hillsville, where Light sells his vegetables.
Light, whose family has farmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains for generations, devotes about half of his 100 acres of vegetables to broccoli in an area where its cousin, cabbage, was once king. When summer temperatures may reach triple digits in Richmond, it is 30 degrees cooler in the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway where his fields are located.
Light said it makes sense to devote more acres to a crop that now travels thousands of miles to reach dinner tables.
"It will be a week fresher when it goes into stores," he said.
Semones said he's added more cooling equipment to store locally grown broccoli as acreage increases.
"Most people tell me it's sweeter and crisper," he said of Virginia-grown broccoli. "It has to be fresher."