It's one of the simplest decisions Western New York food shoppers make at the store: To buy broccoli.
Despite high-profile broccoli haters like former President George H.W. Bush, broccoli is one of the most popular vegetables in America. Its healthy reputation powered demand for more than $750 million worth of the vitamin-packed vegetable in the United States last year.
It could be healthier for the environment, though. Ninety percent of the fresh broccoli the eastern U.S. devours is trucked from California and Mexico. Less than 1 percent of the broccoli New Yorkers eat is grown here, so a lot of diesel fuel gets burned to keep produce sections stocked.
Can science make New York's broccoli habit healthier for the planet? Armed with a new hybrid broccoli plant and a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a "dream team" of researchers and plant breeders coordinated by Cornell University hopes to plant the seeds for a greener broccoli industry on the East Coast.
"It's $7,000 to take a truck here from the West Coast, and when you load it up it's half broccoli, half ice," said Cornell University's Thomas Bjorkman. "A truck from here needs less ice and obviously doesn't have to go as far."
Establish an East Coast broccoli industry that can supply the vegetable 12 months a year, and cutting down on carbon emissions is just the first reward, said Bjorkman, an associate professor of horticulture coordinating the project. "We're also hoping it will be more tender and flavorful from having traveled less, and perhaps more nutritious."
The project's goals include working with seed companies to make the new broccoli strains available to farmers, convincing farmers to grow the vegetable, and making sure that wholesale vegetable distributors and retail sources are ready and willing to take it, Bjorkman said.
"In five years, we are expecting to have demonstrated that East Coast growers can deliver a quality product year-round," Bjorkman said.
The project's success will depend on farmers like Mark Henry. A fourth-generation Eden Valley farmer, Henry runs W.D. Henry and Sons, a 200-acre farm that produces fresh vegetables and bedding plants for landscaping.
This year, Henry grew and harvested about 40 acres of broccoli, along with sweet corn, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers and more. When deciding how much to plant for next year, he's going to take the recent increased demand for local vegetables into account.
"In recent years, it's turned around," Henry said. "People want homegrown. The chain stores want to give people what they want. It's a very exciting thing to have demand for local broccoli."
The new broccoli breeds backed by Cornell could help take some of the danger out of growing broccoli in New York State, he said. They're supposed to resist hot weather better, for one thing.
"When it gets to 80 or 85 degrees, cruciferous crops like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage don't like it," Henry said. "They start behaving badly. They go to seed. They don't produce a quality, edible head."
Farmers' market and farm-stand customers may be more forgiving, but supermarket buyers "want a nice, tight, beaded head," he said. One hot spell can ruin a field for wholesale customers. "When it gets too old or too hot, the beads open up, and as they mature they turn yellow and start to turn into flowers."
Broccoli's sensitivity to heat has historically limited the places where it can be grown on a wholesale commercial scale. It was the cool mornings enjoyed by the fields of California coastal valleys that first put broccoli into the national diet in the 1920s. Italian farmers started growing the vegetable there, shipping broccoli packed in ice eastward in rail cars, in the process giving birth to the modern American vegetable industry.
It will help to find heat-resistant strains, but if you're trying to build an East Coast broccoli industry, better seed is just the beginning, said Maureen Torrey.
Torrey runs Torrey Farms in Elba, north of Batavia in Genesee County. She also heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fruit and Vegetable Advisory Committee. At more than 10,000 acres, Torrey Farms is one of the top five fresh vegetable farms in the Northeast. How much broccoli do they grow? None.
"It's a cool weather crop," explained Torrey. "The high heat we had this summer, even cabbage didn't grow." On the West Coast, broccoli producers beat the heat and supply broccoli year-round by moving their operations up and down the coast with the seasons, she said.
The new broccoli strains might help here, but it'll still be a challenge, she said. "It has to be able to withstand all swings of the weather, from heat to dryness to too much moisture. It's also going to have to produce. With the high input costs today, you have to get a return off that field."
For a wholesale broccoli crop, farmers have to "invest in a packing line and a cooler," she noted. "It's not something you can just plant, go out and pick. It's a significant investment."
But let's say you made that investment, and the weather cooperated. Let's say you lined up buyers for your crop, and another buyer to take the second-grade spears for frozen broccoli.
There's one big issue left, Torrey said: "Who is going to harvest this broccoli? Who is going to pack it? The labor isn't here."
More than many vegetables, broccoli needs workers to tend it, pick and pack it. For 50 acres of broccoli, "you could need 30 or 45 people," Torrey said. While West Coast farmers can draw on a stable migrant labor pool, East Coast farmers have problems hiring enough immigrant labor legally, in a timely fashion.
Canada has a guest worker program that works for its farmers, but the present U.S. visa system isn't working well for all American farmers, Torrey said. Unless a farmer can somehow find enough help locally, that will be the No. 1 issue, she said.
In Eden, Henry said he would consider adding another 20 acres of broccoli if the new strains show promise. But he has to figure out first how he'd get that broccoli picked.
"I'm not trying to throw stones at this -- it's a great idea," Henry said. "We've had real good demand for broccoli the last two years. We doubled our acreage. But it's a very fragile, fine line for oversupply and undersupply when you're talking fresh produce. It doesn't take many acres to create undersupply or oversupply."
When the new broccoli seed becomes available in the next year or two, New York vegetable farmers will have to make their best educated guess about whether it will make money, Henry said. Who ever said farming was boring?
"People ask me what I like to do," Henry said. "I say, 'I don't need to go to the casino -- we're gambling every day around here.' "