Fifty years ago, broccoli was a vegetable virtually unknown in America, but its popularity has grown steadily. Consumption is up 600 percent, and Virginia farmers are vowing to get their share of the broccoli business by joining a federally funded campaign to grow more broccoli on the east coast.
It's a hot morning, so workers at the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market in Hillsville are on their toes, rushing truckloads of broccoli fresh from the field into giant refrigerators on the premises.
Until recently, most of the crop came from California, but Cooperative Extension Agent Wythe Morris says it takes a long time for supplies to reach this part of the country.
"From the day we book it, harvested, transported, processed, back to the grocery stores, we're looking at a minimum of ten days," says Morris. "We just don’t call that fresh!"
And fresh broccoli tastes better, a little sweeter and more tender. It could also be cheaper and more fuel efficient, since east coast consumers are currently paying to have their broccoli shipped from California or Mexico. That's why the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with $3.2 million to help Virginia Tech and six other universities find the best kinds of broccoli to grow here.
Morris says a total of 80 kinds will be studied over the next five years in test gardens and laboratories. The goal is to grow a heat-tolerant plant with a dome-shaped crown. Flat tops collect rain and dew, making the plants more susceptible to rot. Appearance aside, the project will also analyze various broccolis to see if an east coast variety might be more nutritious, and Morris says regional grocery chains will do taste tests.
"I'm going to be participating and also Wegmans out of Rochester, NY with our Mountain Grown and East Coast products," says Morris. "Is this going to become like the wine industry, where we have all kinds of terms to describe the different flavors and smells? We’ll let the customers decide when they get to taste this."
The Eastern Broccoli Project comes at a good time. More and more grocery chains, from Walmart on down, are looking for regional suppliers to save money on shipping and meet consumer demand for locally grown produce. By studying the Southwest Virginia cooperative and growers like Buddy Puckett, the project hopes to create a model for other east coast farmers.
Lesson number one, says Puckett, figure out what the market wants before you plant. He gestures to a field of unwanted broccoli.
"You'll see 12 to 14-inch heads of broccoli, just an ocean of it," he says. "It's too big now to hear them tell it."
Puckett figures people don’t want leftover broccoli smelling up their fridge, so smaller heads are in demand. If he and fellow farmer J.C. Banks can get the size and variety right, they may have a natural advantage over California.
"You know we have some high 80-degree days in the summer time here, but rarely does it not get down to the upper 60s at night, and that’s really your cold crops - your broccoli, your cabbage, your collards, your kales," says Banks. "When the dry times hit, we do irrigate, but it’s not a standard practice. We usually do a week or two a year."
What's more, the climate range along America’s east coast means it’ll always be a great time to grow broccoli somewhere. Florida and coastal Georgia are fine in the winter, Maine is good right about now, and Virginia's ideal for many months in between.