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Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 22, 2011

At The New York Produce Show and Conference, one of the goals is to encourage greater interaction between the great centers of learning in the region and the produce industry. Our primary tool for doing this is a program by which we both bring students to the event so they can learn and gain exposure to our industry and we also invite professors to present their latest research at the event. All too often this research stays buried in academic journals, so we are thrilled to bring to the attention of the trade the people who can actually give life to the research by applying it in business.

Last year our partner institutions were Cornell University, Rutgers University and St. Joseph’s University. All three quickly signed up again to participate this year, and we will soon be announcing some additions to our program for 2011. Here are profiles of the four presentations that were given last year under this program:

A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets… Cornell’s Miguel Gómez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Research On Asian And Hispanic Produce Marketing On The East Coast Identifies A Profitable Opportunity… Rutger’s Professor Ramu Govindasamy To Speak Out At The New York Produce Show And Conference…

‘Local’ Preferences Versus Organic – Dr. John Santon of St. Joseph To Unveil New Research At New York Produce Show And Conference

Cornell’s Brad Rickard To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Done By Cornell And Arizona State University At New York Produce Show And Conference

Personally one of the great joys of putting together the program is the opportunity to engage with brilliant minds doing important work. Among the most intriguing intelligences out there is that of Miguel I. Gómez from Cornell, so we were so pleased to learn that he had an important project to present this year and was going to introduce us and all the attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference to his colleague, Thomas Bjorkman who is Associate Professor of Vegetable Physiology, Department of Horticultural Sciences at Cornell University.

The project this dynamic duo is working on regards the development of an East Coast broccoli industry that the researchers believe might be able to account for as much as 10% of US production.

The interest in such a project is obvious: retail and foodservice buyers might become aware of a new procurement option that could help them respond to consumer interest in local foods. Growers might find an opportunity to diversify their business with an additional crop, and East Coast fresh-cut processors might be able to reduce freight costs, while wholesalers might identify a new roster of growers in need of representation on major terminal markets. West Coast producers and processors may want to seize an opportunity to reduce freight costs to certain customers.

Beyond broccoli, the prospect of a new industry infrastructure suggests the possibility of other products also being grown on the East Coast or even changing the distribution patterns for West Coast or imported produce.

We also think that Professors Gómez and Bjorkman have posed an intellectual challenge that will cause many to rethink what sustainability and local actually means.

The most vocal advocates for local mean a whole bunch of things when they say that word: they are talking small scale, bio-diverse; they want consumers to eat what is in season; they want stores to sell what is grown nearby… and only what is grown nearby.

This project is, intentionally or not, challenging all that. It is suggesting that sustainability must be approached from a different angle. It suggests that telling consumers to only eat root vegetables imposes an unacceptable cost. So it seeks ways to be mindful of issues such as carbon footprints and food miles while retaining a diversity of supply at all times of the year.

We want to hear the whole presentation at The New York Produce Show and Conference, but we want to know more right now. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Manager Mira Slott to find out more.

 

Miguel I. Gómez
Assistant Professor
Charles H. Dyson School of
Applied Economics and Management

Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Q: After your intriguing talk at last year’s inaugural New York Produce Show and Conference, attendees are looking forward to learning about your latest research with project director Thomas Bjorkman at the upcoming show in November. Could you give our readers a preview?

A: This is a new project I’m working on as a principal investigator. The objective is to examine the possibilities of developing an eastern broccoli industry. Part of the specialty crop initiative, Eastern Broccoli Project, is a five-year program supported by a USDA grant. It involves multidisciplinary groups including plant breeders, economic extension specialists and private companies. We will have just completed our first year of work at the time of the presentation, where we will share what we have learned as well as our future strategies and possible opportunities for those interested.

Q: Why broccoli?

A: All plant materials traditionally developed for the market come from seeds that adapt much better to conditions of the west coast. There is a ton of material that adapts quite well to the east coast but has never been tested or brought to market. Cornell has a very strong program of breeding in broccoli. We got together three years ago with universities on the east coast with several USDA labs, researching genetic breeding and the economics of broccoli, and that is how the project came about.

Q: California certainly has a well-entrenched and successful production and distribution system in place. How are the economics, logistics and infrastructural components being assessed?

 A: The goal is not to replace California production but to offer a second alternative of supply. Our objectives are quite modest. After five years of work, we hope about 5 percent to 10 percent of broccoli production will be on the east coast. We see some pockets of broccoli mostly in the state of Maine, also South Carolina, northern Florida and even in New York.

From an economic point of view, if you’re a buyer of east coast broccoli, you need supply all year round. One of the biggest logistics challenges is offering consistent east coast supply.

You have to start in Florida in the winter and move north to Maine. What is the necessary infrastructure, what are the quantities that make sense when looking at economies of scale? We’re not talking about local farmers. This is not a local foods project of developing an isolated program for a single region; this has to be integrated throughout the east coast for year-round flow.  Part of the project is identifying regions where clusters of growers can see a good business opportunity. The project is unfolding in different phases.

Q: Could you outline those phases for perspective?

A: The first part in the strategy is the material item identification, the germplasm, genetic material of broccoli that are good conduits to develop inbred lines for seeds appropriate for the east coast.  We have high humidity so we need material for more humid conditions. Thomas Bjorkman, the project director, is the plant breeder and he’ll give a better explanation. [Editor’s note: see his interview below].

Phase two is breeding inbred lines to develop hybrid seeds. The plan is to develop the breeding program. We have been doing a lot of trials in the last year, testing university materials and collaborating with the private sector to identify possible candidates that can become seeds later.

A third component is regional trials, selecting genetic material to develop seeds and plant them to see how they perform. This will help determine the best materials for commercial use. There are five sites where these trials are taking place: Charleston, South Carolina; Carol County, Virginia; Waynesville, North Carolina; Geneva, New York, and Monmouth, Maine.

In my economic component, the goal is to develop crop budgets for different regions, identify cost of production pre- and post-harvest within different regions. One for New York, Maine, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina. It’s still early in the process.

We’re also comparing cost of production with California. It is important for packers and shippers when deciding to invest in the east coast.

Q: When will these cost analyses be available? What are you discovering so far?

A: These crop budgets will be ready by the end of the year. We can see that the cost of production is a little bit higher on the east coast than the west coast, but this is very early. These cost differentials can be adjusted by transportation costs with east coast growers closer to customers. It makes a good proposition, but only if you have enough volume. In order for this to be competitive, you need huge harvests so post-harvest costs are lower from cooling and packing to shipping, transportation and distribution.

Q: Do those involved in the project have a vested interest in whether this project succeeds or fails? 

A: As researchers, we’re not promoting an agenda. We just want to provide information to the produce industry so that they can make better decisions. This project could impact many people from packers and shippers in California to farmers on the east coast. Will this help us or not? The broccoli growers on the east coast say they already have a market. It’s a sensitive project.

It’s difficult to convince growers already thriving in Maine it’s good for them because more broccoli in the region opens more opportunity in the region. There’s a case that a strong east coast broccoli infrastructure provides greater marketing options for the industry as a whole. They will have better seed available to increase their productivity.

We’re testing commercial material to see how it adapts, better or worse on the east coast, and also screening for commercial seed that is best for the east coast. For now, we’re doing everything on experimental plots in greenhouses and labs. But next year, our plan is to do trials with growers.

Q: Are you networking with east coast growers to prepare for these trials? If a grower is interested, would they be able to participate?

A: Another part is the extension component, working with growers in the region that may be interested in growing broccoli. The idea is these extension specialists have developed relationships with many growers and that will allow us to do trials in field.

Growers in North Carolina that have traditionally grown tobacco are looking for alternative crops. In fact, some are doing tomatoes, and it seems like broccoli will be a perfect crop rotation for tomatoes. This would be a very good option for these growers. These are the types of network clusters we are reaching out to that could potentially have commercial interest in growing broccoli.

At the same time, one of our objectives is to show the economics to these big packers/shippers. The growers are not able to invest in infrastructure by themselves, and they need distribution specialists and a network with customers.

We are very excited and optimistic about this project but really want to understand if economically it makes sense to have an east coast broccoli industry. In this case, what we want to do is really understand the economics of regional systems.

Q: Did you have a hypothesis going into this project?

A: I do have a hypothesis. It’s analogous to if you have a lot of money and it’s financially sound to diversify investments. Putting all your eggs in one basket is risky.

We see a very large concentration of broccoli coming from California, three counties in the country; just diversifying places to grow products economically makes sense, to diversify your supplies of products.

If there’s a drought in California, or another bad situation and the broccoli harvest is affected, it will drive prices crazy if 90 percent comes from this region. An eastern broccoli market is a means to spread risk in your production, as long as it’s economically viable. We don’t want to support systems that are not economically efficient.

Q: In the end, doesn’t that require getting enough people on board and invested to create a seamless supply chain?

A: In this project, we are aiming to work with major retailers in the region. We want to approach the main retailers that might like to promote east coast product. We are looking at the whole system -- growing, packing distribution, and retailing.

This is a five-year project. Our numbers could be very different as the project unfolds. This will be a big check on reality. Commercial trials with farmers will be a critical point in our research. At the end of the day, if the growers don’t like it, they won’t move forward. 

This is part of the 2008 Farm Bill that allows research for the specialty crop sector. This has never happened in the past. Most funding went to commodity crops. The industry is responding. We keep in touch with an advisory council of farmers, packers, shippers and retailers observing what we’re doing.

Q: If produce industry executives are interested in joining the project, how can they become involved?

A: Thomas Bjorkman is the gatekeeper. We have a web page with a link where those interested can register and become a part of this.  

I’m working on the economic component and am excited at the opportunity to interact with our target audience at the upcoming New York Produce Show and Conference. We want to tell our audience what we are doing and bridge new opportunities to help the industry.

Mira contacted Thomas Bjorkman to learn more…

Thomas Bjorkman
Project Director, Eastern Broccoli Project
Associate Professor of Vegetable Physiology
Department of Horticultural Sciences
Cornell University, Geneva, New York

Q: What triggered the Eastern Broccoli Project?

A: How we got into this is kind of fun. As a plant physiologist, I saw aberrant development of broccoli, a perspective I started exploring 20 years ago, really trying to understand why the plant doesn’t develop properly in certain environments and looking at practical application. A colleague here -- Phillip Griffiths, associate professor of vegetable breeding in the Department of Horticultural Sciences — was working on developing better heads for production in New York. And another colleague — Mark Farnham, research geneticist, USDA-ARS-US Vegetable Laboratory, in Charleston, South Carolina — was also breeding for this quality. We talked about how to do selection, not just picking products that escape but ones with genetics to provide better form. Our hope was to get money to support progress in these efforts.

In the last Farm Bill, the produce industry got behind the specialty crop research initiative. Now there was a new funding pool to do this industry specific research and broaden our project goals. What would it take to build an east coast broccoli market? We needed to put together a top-notch, trans-disciplinary team.

Q:  The scope of the project took quite a leap. Wouldn’t that involve buy-in from the entire supply and distribution chain as well as retail?

A: Our first reaction was that the project was too complex and we couldn’t do it. We got a planning grant to help figure this out. It became clear that success would require a year-round supply of broccoli coming from the east coast. If not, the project would not be viable. It has to be big; $100 million a year, and involve major growers, shippers, and retailers, high volume and high quality. Fall short of that and you fail.  The simplistic way I look at it: If supply stops, customers go to somebody else.

The California growers are very, very good and have established this reputation; you find a shipper and they will deliver every week.

Q: How do you go about developing a competitive east coast alternative? Are the breeding options and conditions feasible to maintain year-round supply?

A: We looked at whether you could you do this going up and down the east coast. The answer was yes. Geography is varied enough to hit every window, if you can develop product that can handle warm and humid nights.

Even if we develop the genetics with the public breeders, we need companies to sell to the growers.  If they could get the genetics from public programs and have a customer base, they were prepared to invest in new varieties. The seed companies think they can make money on this working with the growers. And distributors find it convenient and profitable to distribute to existing customers. With current demand for locally grown, it could be quite solid for eastern retailers if the quality is there.

The other piece that creates opportunity here is the very high fuel cost. Covering that fuel cost is a major challenge when shipping product across the country. 

Q: So, a confluence of factors creates ideal timing to pursue this project?

A: It was a combination of federal funding, interest in locally grown, the potential to make up for high transportation costs, and the breakthrough with the breeding for weather conditions.

We have broccoli breeding lines that produce commercial quality heads even in the most severe conditions, but they need to be put into commercial varieties. We’re counting on the vegetable seed companies to develop these.

Q: Are the major players on board?

A: Bejo, Seminis, Syngenta, Johnny’s… These are heavy hitters. Because of the way federal funding is structured, private companies need to contribute an equal amount of money to the project. These companies have contributed substantial monies and have committed to the federal government to develop these varieties. We’re in the process, one year into the project looking at public breeders’ material.

Q: Could this lead to development of other commodities on the east coast? What challenges do east coast growers face in taking on new varieties and integrating product into their existing infrastructure? 

A: I think it will actually make a big difference. If we pull it off, other commodities could follow. New York green beans, sweet corn, cabbage...Those markets are well set up, and the varieties and distribution work pretty well. Broccoli is similar to sweet corn with a short shelf life, where cutting transportation is beneficial.  Cabbage production is similar to broccoli, but post-handling and distribution are very different. The different vegetables have different requirements, so knowing which future vegetables will benefit from the infrastructures and learning about customer relationships that get established from the broccoli product will give us an advantage.

This project has been about creating business for various people in the system. If it turns out well, there will be opportunities to piggyback off broccoli project.

Q: With the economic uncertainty and push to cut federal spending, are you concerned your project might become a victim?

A: We are actually set, even with what is going on with the economy. The specialty crop alliance made this a mandatory program. The money we were awarded will not be taken back even though it goes five years. Knowing the funding will be there makes a big difference because everyone has to be on board. If there is no assurance of future distribution, the investment wouldn’t matter.

Q: What feedback are you receiving from the distribution side?

A: There are many different models of distribution. Some grower/shippers are interested in expanding their season so they want to contract production in other parts of the East Coast.

Another doing year-round cabbage delivery to customers on the East Coast could easily add a product like broccoli to their line that has similar properties.

West Coast grower/shippers are establishing Mexican production for their eastern markets. Why wouldn’t they take advantage of East Coast broccoli production to expand their reach? If they can set up in Mexico with all the challenges there, why couldn’t they set up in New York? It could be contract production or from the perspective of distribution if they already have distribution in place.

Q: Are East Coast broccoli growers with established niches embracing this project?

A: Some current broccoli growers are nervous about the competition, but some see it as an opportunity as a way to capitalize on a robust market. New varieties can help them produce better. We’re interested in every broccoli producer on the east coast becoming successful.  It will always be necessary to adapt to changes in the market, even though change makes people anxious.

Q: As you share more details about this far-reaching project at The New York Produce Show and Conference this November, what message do you want attendees to take away with them?

A: The main thing we want to achieve is for people attending the produce show to think about whether there is an opportunity for them and what that opportunity looks like. The nice thing about being at a public university is I’m not making any money on this project. I want to see the industry do better. I’m expecting the companies to compete hard against each other because that’s what they do. But in some situations by working together we can help everybody to prosper. 

Particularly, we need enough growers to promote the post-harvest infrastructure that it takes. If growers have the opportunity to have three or four distributors interested, that’s great.

We can provide the support to help people become as technically good as they can be. Then it comes down to execution, how well do you grow the crop? How well do you treat your customers.

Q: Have you connected with East Coast retailers? Are there particular chains or regional pockets that are jumpstarting the process or offer the most potential?

A: Wegmans has been on board from the beginning, and we have been in touch with regional retailers like Hannaford, already getting broccoli from Maine. It works.

We’ve started with regional markets so they’re not in head-to-head competition with each other. Maine is up and running. Western New York has a lot of promise. It’s highly productive and has great growing conditions with a lot of vegetable production here. Cabbage is pretty mature in terms of volume, where with broccoli there’s still growth.

We’re looking at medium-elevation areas in Virginia, which seem to work quite well. Interesting opportunities exist in the mountains of North Carolina’s Asheville area. We think they could be harvesting in the southeast when virtually no one else is.

For early spring and late fall, you have a lot of central areas to South Carolina down into Georgia and then the coastal areas from North Carolina down to Florida. Already producers there seem to be figuring it out.

In terms of post-harvest handling and distribution, having specific areas of production will make it a lot easier for the supermarket, for the wholesale crown-cut market. The new varieties will also be useful for farmers’ markets or to sell to the smaller grocery store in town. For smaller growers interested in diversity of products, that’s a completely different market. We’re not ignoring the small growers. They’ll benefit from the flow of broccoli year-round.

Q: How are you phasing in the project? Are you doing pilot testing?

A: We have regional trials, so this year, we looked at the best of what’s currently available. Next year, we’ll have experimental materials from public and private breeding lines, candidates for developing into commercial varieties. When you release the breeding line and name, it as a variety, so it may take a while after that until there is enough seed and growing acceptance of that. So we’re looking at breeding lines for the next couple of years, and breeders will be looking fervently at developing those into varieties.

The seed companies are probably three years away from producing varieties — a very ambitious timeline — and we expect they will release better varieties on years to follow.

We’re trying to develop a grower base, having growers start to hone their skills at raising broccoli and figure out the best infrastructure for different scales of production, getting growers and retailers talking to each other to have a sense of how to handle things. We’re laying the ground work to insure good production recommendations.

People will have a different set of skills to begin with; a sweet corn grower will need to learn how to grow and pick broccoli, where someone else has a lot of production experience but because of different cooling and handling requirements, will have to change things in the packing shed. The project is complex with many components but we have a solid support system.

The specialty crops research initiative started with the 2008 Farm Bill, and the Specialty Crop Alliance got behind that. United Fresh was one of the leaders in organizing that alliance. They did excellent work making projects like this and others like this possible.

The grant we got from USDA is a little over $3 million over five years, and 28 people are involved in one way or another. That money goes a long way. We also have some financial support from universities, and a substantial commitment of funds from the industry, from retailers and distributors and farmers. The universities involved include: University of Maine, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson University in South Carolina, Oregon State, Cornell and the USDA.

We have many backers that want this project to succeed.

It is a fascinating project and may well point to the evolution of a marketing-driven, commercially viable interpretation of Local. Clearly, expecting people in Boston to become “locavores” and eat only food grown 50 miles from downtown is unrealistic. But the idea of setting up an east coast supply chain allowing for year-round availability is intriguing – although its viability is uncertain.

The Achilles heel of this project and others that have been proposed over the years is that they typically hinge on gas prices. In other words, they are projects that, even if successful, will have higher production costs than they do in California. The expectation is that by having cheaper transportation, this higher production cost can be neutralized.

The problem is that the price for gas and diesel fluctuate. With recent advances in technology allowing for massive fracking and enormous reserves of natural gas having been discovered all around the world, including in the Marcellus Shale Formation, we may be entering an age in which energy costs go down.

The world is littered with projects, including synthetic fuel efforts funded by the federal government under President Jimmy Carter that made perfect sense under some particular projection on oil prices, but those efforts failed miserably when those prices did not pan out.

In 2011 dollars, oil was $111.43 in December of 1979. By 1999 – 20 years later – the price of oil, again in 2011 dollars, wasn’t even $20. These types of fluctuations in oil prices are a big challenge when seeking investment in these types of projects. Can the economics pan out if oil prices decline between 2011 and 2031 as they did between 1979 and 1999?

We are all in favor of regional efforts such as this, but the way to make them a success is to bring in world class experts. That means coming up with a plan that makes it worthwhile for the big West Coast grower/shippers to grow broccoli on the East Coast and for the big West Coast cut vegetable processors to build East Coast processing plants.

These are the kinds of people with the knowledge, experience and contacts to make the efforts very successful. These are also smart business people; they know that defending legacy investments is futile if there really are better alternatives, so a refusal to get involved would probably mean they didn’t see the economics as panning out.

Another possible opportunity for this project is to do some export business. A few years ago, there was a broccoli shortage in Europe and retailers there sent buyers all over California looking for broccoli, but they wanted EuropeGAP-certified product and that was scarce indeed.

One wonders how broccoli growers in California do feel about this effort. They were told that it was a great triumph for the produce industry to get these funds in the Farm Bill, yet it seems that the funds are being used in service of a kind of industrial policy to alter the industry — perhaps not in their favor.

One also wonders if this model of government funding works at all. One model of economic development is to have really smart people such as Professor Gómez and Professor Bjorkman theorize about what kind of industry structure might work and then try to see if it can be developed. Typically, though, in America, we expect that those closest to the industry are likely to identify new opportunities, and their willingness to invest their own capital in the project is an important sign of its viability.

One would suppose that defenders of these kinds of efforts would say that the large scale required for their success requires this kind of planning, often supported by government funds, but those familiar with the history of organizations, such as Federal Express, know that scale is not an insurmountable obstacle for today’s capitalists.

C.H. Robinson now owns Rosemont Farms, Dole has a fresh-cut plant in North Carolina. Giants such as Six-L’s know about producing and marketing up and down the East Coast. These companies all have resources and capabilities. It seems odd that there would be a really profitable opportunity but nobody acting to take advantage of the opportunity.

Yet, it just might work. Sometimes putting the issue on the surface is itself a service, and because the effort is a joint one, focusing on new seed and new marketing structures, it is just possible that the researchers found a small market failure where the seed folks didn’t think it worth investing in development because there was no market and the marketers didn’t think it worth investing in an industry infrastructure because there was no quality product.

This could be a revolution in the industry if it develops as hoped and other products start to piggyback on the infrastructure. Once trucks are rolling to retailers, it becomes possible to put other items on the same trucks. It is not a coincidence that specialty firms such as Frieda’s and Melissa’s are located in California, not in North Carolina. But that could change.

Which is why we are really intrigued to hear Professor Gómez and Professor Bjorkman present at The New York Produce Show and Conference. For East Coast retailers, wholesalers and growers, it is a specific opportunity but for the whole industry, it is raising possibly transformational questions about what we will grow, where and how it will be marketed. Forewarned is forearmed, so we look forward to hearing the whole story in New York.

Remember, you can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

Book a hotel room here.

Get travel discounts here.

Remember that in addition to top notch education sessions such as this one presented by Professors Gómez and Bjorkman of Cornell University, the New York Produce Show and Conference features a trade show, general session including the Perishable Pundit “Thought Leaders” Panel, chef demos, tours of retail, wholesale, foodservice operations and a terrific spouse/companion program, including High-Tea at the Plaza Hotel. Plus, new this year will be special conferences devoted to Global Trade and Foodservice.

Here is a little brochure.

And please check out the website here

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