NE1839: Development and Evaluation of Broccoli Adapted to the Eastern US

(Multistate Research Project)

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Importance of broccoli production to the Eastern US

The goal of NE_TEMP1839 is to support the development and commercialization of new, high quality, eastern-adapted broccoli hybrids by providing coordinated evaluations of broccoli crown quality and yield over a range of eastern environments. Broccoli is a major specialty crop with well-known nutritional benefits and a farm-gate value of over $800,000,000 (USDA-NASS, 2015). The rising importance and value of broccoli has led to renewed interest by Eastern U.S. producers, at a time when enthusiasm for locally grown food and transportation costs are also high. The proposed project will result in the availability to eastern growers of adapted broccoli hybrids that produce a high-value crop in climatically variable and challenging eastern environments.

Broccoli is a healthy vegetable that is in high demand by eastern consumers. The fundamental reason why broccoli production in the East is far lower than the regional demand is that most commercially available cultivars were bred for production in California, Arizona, and Mexico.  They do not produce a marketable product (the broccoli crown) under the growing conditions of the eastern US because they are not well adapted to the climate. Warm nights during the growing season block the environmental cues causing flower buds to develop in synchrony (Farnham and Bjorkman, 2011b). Climate change will increase the need for adaptations to these conditions (Keefe, 2015, Springmann 2016). Such adaptations are difficult to breed for, and the small existing seed market has made that objective a low priority for seed companies.

The heightened demand for a regional supply of Eastern broccoli makes this a good time to create a self-sustaining larger market for adapted seed. Currently, broccoli supply to the eastern U.S. depends on production on the West Coast of the U.S. and in Mexico, incurring expensive and environmentally challenging transport. Buyers want regional supplies to satisfy consumer demand, but quality and reliability are non-negotiable for them. The SCRI-funded Eastern Broccoli project has overseen the development of heat tolerant varieties for eastern growers, and some of these are coming on the market now and in the near future. New, adapted broccoli hybrids can deliver the quality and consistency that buyers require. However, these new hybrids are just the beginning; breeding programs anticipate further improvements, including even better heat tolerance.

The development of the broccoli industry in the East provides economic development through production of a high-value crop, particularly in economically depressed rural communities; social benefits that include greater access to locally grown vegetables and a more resilient broccoli supply for eastern consumers; and environmental benefits from reduced use of transportation fuel and irrigation water, and from improved crop rotations on Eastern vegetable farms.

Needs as indicated by stakeholders and efforts of Eastern Broccoli Project

In support of the goal of developing an Eastern broccoli industry with an expected farm-gate value of $100 million by 2021, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) funded the Eastern Broccoli Project (EBP). The industry stakeholders need high quality broccoli hybrids adapted to the diverse climatic conditions of the east to supply fresh, regional produce year-round. Year-round availability of eastern product will be possible through production that moves from the southeast to the northeast and back again.

An eastern supply of high-quality broccoli requires three components: improved broccoli varieties of broccoli, a skilled grower base, and a developed distribution chain. Most importantly, the successful and sustainable establishment of an Eastern broccoli industry depends on the continued availability of hybrids adapted to eastern environments. Specifically, those hybrids must consistently produce both high quality crowns and profitable yields. The strong grower base and distribution chain resulting from other portions of the EBP will ensure that demand for eastern-adapted cultivars remains high, so that developing, testing, and commercializing these new hybrids is a worthwhile endeavor for seed companies.

To that end, the EBP established a trial network and developed standardized rating protocols to conduct consistent evaluations of broccoli crown quality and marketable yield in production regions from Maine to Florida. The purpose of the NE_TEMP1839 Multistate project is to sustain the trial system beyond current SCRI funding so that it will continue to support the development and improvement of broccoli varieties that will allow eastern growers to produce high quality broccoli crowns that are acceptable to eastern buyers and consumers. We anticipate that other researchers working on broccoli will become aware of the trial system and make use of the evaluation service, or broccoli that comes from it, in their research (for example, in studies of nutrition, flavor, or postharvest treatment).

Presently, all three public broccoli breeding programs and several seed companies make use of the EBP trial system to assess the performance of new hybrids that are targeted to eastern growing regions. Turning the EBP trial-site system into a USDA Multistate Research Project ensures that the network continues to enable further improvement of cultivars targeted to eastern environments.  The proposed project will enhance communication and coordination among EBP trial collaborators and offer evaluation expertise in support of broccoli breeding efforts. Furthermore, it will continue to foster the good working relationship between public and private (seed company) programs that has developed as a result of the EBP.  

There are many advantages for doing the work as a multistate effort: having closely coordinated protocols makes the results more powerful; multiple plantings and locations deliver a wealth of information across numerous eastern environments and production seasons each year, increasing breeding efficiency; coordination among trial sites can lead to further external (federal or industry) funding; and the trial network can be expanded to include other brassicas (e.g. cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, etc.) with potential in the region. Seed company participants will learn about the performance across multiple environments of not only their own hybrids, but also promising public program hybrids that are available for licensing. They will also gain insights about the performance of competitors’ unreleased, anonymized, material. NE_TEMP1839 will foster collaboration among researchers working on similar problems and gives them the expertise to advise Extension personnel in other eastern states. Additionally, the multistate effort offers a useful arena for training graduate students at partnering institiutions in horticultural disciplines such as plant breeding, where there is a critical need for new scientists.

The consequences of not instituting NE_TEMP1839 include slower improvement of adapted broccoli and loss of both evaluation expertise and the coordinated network that is already in place. Testing broccoli hybrids would be more expensive and take years longer, which would discourage seed companies from developing cultivars for the east and reduce the intensity of public breeding. As mentioned previously, NE_TEMP1839 has the potential to expand to other brassica crops, but that capacity would be lost if the project were discontinued.

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