A North Carolina State University horticulturist is a member of a team of agricultural scientists that has embarked on what may be a decade-long effort to grow a $100 million broccoli industry on the East Coast.

The effort is backed by a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with an additional $1.7 million in matching contributions from participating private-sector companies. The funding will be used to help develop broccoli varieties to suit conditions in the eastern U.S., recruit farmers, and organize networks for growers and distributors.

Led by Cornell University, the effort includes North Carolina State University, USDA, five other universities and 11 companies, including Raleigh-based L & M Companies.

While some broccoli is grown along the U.S. East Coast, the vast majority of the broccoli purchased and consumed in the eastern U.S. is grown in California and Arizona and trucked across the country, said Jeanine Davis, associate professor of horticultural science in the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and North Carolina Cooperative Extension specialist. Davis, who is stationed at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River near Asheville, will represent North Carolina State in the project.

“This is an opportunity for our farmers that will result in fresher broccoli for our consumers,” said Davis of the project. She added that a central focus of the project will be plant breeding. Most of the broccoli now grown in the eastern U.S. was developed for growing conditions in the western part of the country. Much of this breeding work will be done at a USDA Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, S.C.

Will look for adapted varieties

Davis will play a role in the search for broccoli varieties suited to East Coast conditions. Beginning in the summer of 2011, Davis will grow from 30 to 75 different broccoli varieties to see which ones do the best. This work will be done at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.

It may be that some of these varieties will do well enough that they can be recommended to growers, Davis said. Some varieties may display specific characteristics that plant breeders may then try to tease out and include in new varieties developed specifically for East Coast conditions.

Davis also hopes to learn from the Waynesville plantings how best to grow broccoli for commercial markets. For example, Davis said most North Carolina broccoli growers sell their broccoli at farmers markets, and the broccoli sold at farmers markets tends to have a larger head than broccoli sold in grocery stores. There are only a few North Carolina growers currently producing broccoli on a large commercial scale for grocery stores.

Growers must learn how to produce the kind of broccoli grocery stores want if they are to tap into this lucrative market. That’s part of what Davis will be doing, learning how to produce the kind of broccoli grocery stores sell.

She said this effort began last summer with a small planting at the Waynesville agricultural research station. In an effort to produce the smaller, more dome-shaped heads grocery stores want, Davis spaced her plants more closely together than would normally be the case.

As the project moves forward, Davis said she will work with growers to show them how to grow broccoli for grocery stores and develop Extension materials on growing broccoli in the Southeast.

The project is set to run for five years, Davis said, and may then be continued for an additional five years.

Another focus of the project will be the development of a coordinated infrastructure between various sectors of the industry. Economists and extension specialists will work to organize networks of growers, distributors and retailers.

Thomas Bjorkman, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University, is the project’s principal investigator. Said Bjorkman of the project, “Our assembled team of breeders, production specialists and market developers has the breeding stocks and expertise to develop an eastern broccoli industry. We are simultaneously developing a grower base, distribution network and market.”