There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. It turns out the same is true for broccoli.

California produces 90 percent of all broccoli consumed in the United States. And Monterey County alone accounts for about 40 percent. As drought increasingly has ravaged Monterey County and much of the rest of the state over recent years, it has raised a national food security issue, as well as the obvious harm it caused farmers locally.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded the Eastern Broccoli Project: to support the production and marketing of high-quality East Coast-grown broccoli as a supplement to what’s grown on the West Coast. Since the project was launched by Thomas Björkman of Cornell University in New York in 2010, the number of broccoli farms from Maine to Florida has doubled.

Over the past decade, the project has made substantial headway toward creating an East Coast broccoli industry. It now includes seven other universities and 11 companies, and is nearing the goal set at the outset to create a $100 million industry within 10 years.

However, 90 percent of the broccoli consumed in the U.S. still comes from the West Coast. During this time, “Buy Local” has become the mantra of farmers markets and food stores across the nation. But when it comes to broccoli, the eastern United States clearly still hasn’t fully gotten the message.

Eating with Our Eyes

One of the main problems is that we eat with our eyes. And broccoli grown on the East Coast doesn’t look like broccoli grown in California. The reason is that almost all broccoli strains were developed to mature under California’s Mediterranean climate, with uniformity of beads and heads. That’s what we’re all used to seeing in grocery stores.

While Björkman is developing new strains for the East Coast that mature into broccoli similar to what grows in California, it is not exactly the same. The difference in climate—the East Coast is hotter and more humid during the summer than California—normally results in uneven bead size and uneven heads. The new varieties are much less prone to that problem, but the genetics providing better adaptation often comes with a somewhat different green color or larger flower buds.

I spent most of my professional life in the mushroom industry, but in 2014 began working with the Eastern Broccoli Project. Previous research had shown that consumers were interested in purchasing locally grown produce, and on average they would pay more for it. Because of the difference in appearance, whether most buyers - the gatekeepers of the produce section - would be willing to provide locally grown in their stores was still an open question.

In conjunction with Björkman, Miguel I. Gomez of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, and Jiayi Dong, a University of California, Davis, graduate student, I conducted an online survey with produce buyers to examine the broccoli quality they demand.

In our study, Produce Buyer Quality Requirements to Form an Eastern Broccoli Industry, published in the Journal of Food Distribution Research, we found that buyers favored uniform appearance over the additional value provided by local sourcing. The quality standards buyers strongly preferred reflected industry norms of high-quality broccoli: dark green color, uniform heads and beads, small bead size, and short stems.

NY Produce Show 2019
Nicole Amerling, right, a Lehigh Business MS student, and Rebecca Wasserman-Olin, a MS student in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, help collect survey data at the New York Produce Show in December 2019.

As our survey concludes, “This suggests that East Coast growers must first establish product quality competitiveness—especially regarding color, bead size, and head uniformity—to compete with the California broccoli. While these key product attributes depend a lot on the development of new varieties suitable for the region, stem length and maturity are relatively easier to manage and should be a quick win to augment product attractiveness. In particular, growers should ensure that broccoli has short stems and are not flush cut, as flush cuts are not only less desirable but also reduce product weight and thus yield. Flush cut stems, while acceptable, will lower quality and raise costs compared to short stems.”

Another finding from our study suggests a possible path forward for East Coast broccoli growers while new varieties that will thrive in the region are developed. Perhaps not surprisingly, our survey found that natural food resellers are more open to variations in appearance for foods grown locally.

“Moreover, as natural food resellers are typically smaller, growers could start with a smaller scale launch with them,” the study suggests. “As growers become more proficient and competent, able to meet the other quality parameters, they could scale up production and approach larger clients.”

Live From New York, It’s Broccoli!

One drawback to doing the survey online was that buyers made their judgments based solely on photographs, rather than looking at the actual product. Therefore, we repeated the survey in December 2019 at the annual New York Produce Show, held at the Jacob Javits Center.

Based on the assumption that both types of broccoli are available year-round at $18 per case, we showed buyers West Coast and East Coast broccoli, and asked them to rate the overall quality of each, as well as the color, bead size, and uniformity. Finally, we asked them which they would rather purchase.

We are analyzing the results and we expect it will shed further light on how to move more East Coast broccoli into the local consumers’ basket.

Hear More from Professor Phillip Coles

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Phillip S. Coles, M.B.A., M.S., professor of practice in the department of Decision and Technology Analytics at Lehigh University's College of Business talks about why there is no food shortage, but there are a lot of bare shelves in the supermarkets.

Phillip S. Coles

Phillip S. Coles

Phillip S. Coles is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Decision and Technology Analytics at Lehigh Business.