Broccoli industry could boom for East Coast growers

HILLSVILLE—Most of the broccoli sold on the East Coast is grown in California and Arizona and trucked east, arriving in stores as many as 10 days after harvest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $3.2 million over the next five years to help build an East Coast network of growers and markets to bring locally grown broccoli closer to consumers.

With another $1.7 million coming from private sector companies, almost $5 million will be spent on field trials for better broccoli varieties for East Coast climates, improving the taste and building marketing chains from North Florida to Maine as the growing season advances. While broccoli growers all over the East Coast will be involved, Carroll County growers were chosen to participate because of their existing network of small farms and previous success in providing local foods to grocery chains in Southwest Virginia.

"Locally we’re looking at about $132,000 plus another $24,000 for marketing to do field trials over the five-year period," in Carroll County, said Wythe Morris, Virginia Cooperative Extension commercial horticulture agent. "We’ve got about five or six growers of different sizes participating in the initial field trials. We think once this is said and done, we could have as much as 40 or 50 growers involved, from large to small. We work with a lot of small growers, and Carroll County has the infrastructure now, with the farmers’ market and new hydro-coolers, to ship broccoli anywhere."

The Southwest Virginia shipping point market in Hillsville was built in the early 1990s with the support of the Virginia Farm Bureau, and those facilities were key to the research project. "With all the additional packaging and marketing, there’s also an opportunity for more niche jobs related to expanding the broccoli trade," Morris added. "This will be a good stimulant for the local economy."

The first year of research will evaluate existing broccoli varieties grown in the mountains, Morris said. The second year will be spent evaluating the top 10 local varieties against some new broccoli strains bred for the East Coast.

In addition to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Charleston, S.C., the project involves seven ag research universities, including Virginia Tech. Eleven private corporations are also involved. Morris said the goal is to build a $100 million-a-year market for East Coast broccoli, which equals one-seventh of the volume shipped east each year.

"You don’t want to produce broccoli unless you have a market ready to take it," he said. "So another part of the project is to develop new buyers and a shipping network for East Coast markets. Here in Virginia we’ll be able to probably market back to the South, plus we’ll be able to market to the North, because their crop will not be ready when we harvest.

"I’ve had new growers right now say, ‘I want to grow broccoli,’ but we’re not at the stage where we’re ready to grow more. We’re still getting our ducks in a row. But there’s a lot of excitement about it."

Contact Morris at 276-730-3110 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.

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