California has always been the king of broccoli — dominating production sales for decades.
But that’s about to change. In New York, agriculturalists are combining innovative plant science and savvy marketing in a bid to win a bigger share of nearly $1 billion in nationwide sales.
Former President George H.W. Bush famously banned broccoli from Air Force One, but these days the veggie is more popular than ever. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita consumption increased to 5.9 pounds in 2019 (versus 0.5 pounds in the ‘70s) and enjoys superfood status thanks to its disease-fighting vitamins and antioxidants.
Although cultivation still falls far behind sweet corn, onions, salad greens, and other crops in the state and the region, Hudson Valley farmers are increasingly growing broccoli and selling it to mid-sized wholesalers, regional farm stands and markets, CSA shares, schools, and other institutions. As of 2017, 113 farms in Orange, Dutchess, Ulster, and Columbia counties were growing broccoli, up from 38 in 2012. Yet despite the uptick, New York broccoli farmers can’t compete with California’s ideal growing conditions. “The vegetable growing regions of California are blessed with steady, temperate weather that’s perfect for growing many vegetables for much of the year, especially broccoli,” explains Jeff Arnold, vegetable production manager for the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (HVFH) in Hurley.
At locations like HVFH, which devotes about six of its 30 acres to organic broccoli, there’s a very brief window for optimal growing. “Broccoli needs warm days, but not too warm, and cool nights, but not too cool, to develop properly,” says Arnold. “Small deviations from its preferred temperature range will result in deformed, unmarketable heads. In the Northeast, our short, temperamental springs and hot, humid summers are particularly detrimental to growth — leaving us with fall as the only reliable season.”
But the state is making headway. New York is currently part of the Eastern Broccoli Project, a ten-year federally funded initiative to overcome farming obstacles. So far, it’s been successful in breeding heat-resistant varieties of broccoli and fine-tuning growing techniques, according to Thomas Björkman, a Cornell University horticulture professor and principal investigator of the project.
Michael Roznye, the founder and “chief evangelist” of regional distributor Red Tomato agrees, adding that the project’s findings have “completely changed the game” for broccoli producers in the East. In fact, the successful research encouraged Todd Erling, executive director of the AgriBusiness Development Corporation, to enlist Red Tomato and the Eastern Broccoli Project in a $50,000 state-funded study grant which will explore the feasibility of expanding production, packing, and handling infrastructure in New York.
“Farmers respond to market opportunities,” says Erling, and the new study identifies several, including expansion of large-scale commodity production in western New York, the establishment of cooperative production, icing and packing facilities, plus a frozen broccoli initiative that would ship New York broccoli to underutilized berry freezing equipment in Maine.
Although California farming is stressed by climate change and soaring labor and transportation costs, New York still has a way to go to be competitive in broccoli production. But, Arnold says, “as part of a diversified distribution model that’s targeting local markets, broccoli definitely has a very important role in our region.”