A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant could help increase production and demand for broccoli grown on the East Coast.

In the recent round of specialty crop grants, the USDA awarded $2 million to Cornell University's Eastern Broccoli Project to enlarge broccoli production and make broccoli a self-sustaining crop on the East Coast.

The "Developing An Eastern Broccoli Industry Through Cultivar Development, Economically and Environmentally Sustainable Production and Delivery" project was distributed through USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

Developing a year-round eastern supply is paramount for maintaining market access, according to the study proposal.

The program seeks to triple production to a $100 million farm gate value by making broccoli more profitable for seed companies, growers and distributors.

Statisticians have underestimated eastern broccoli acreage, said Thomas Bjorkman, associate professor of vegetable crop physiology in the Geneva, N.Y.-based Cornell's department of horticulture.

Instead of a couple hundred acres, production is around several thousand acres and increasing, he said.

Short production windows which don't make crops commercially viable have been the biggest marketing obstacle, Bjorkman said.

New university-developed varieties could help growers from Maine to Florida harvest throughout the year, he said.

"People (growers) are definitely responding to the demand," Bjorkman said. "The project will provide better varieties so growers can extend their season and reduce their risk. To get the market going, having a year-round supply with the quality the retailers expect, will make it a lot easier for everyone on the supply end."

Growers are pooling packing sheds and shipping, which could help cover demand that a single supplier might not be able to meet, he said.

Eden, N.Y.-based W.D. Henry & Sons Inc. has been growing broccoli for a decade.

Dan Henry, partner with the fifth generation western New York operation, works with Cornell in variety trials.

W.D. Henry grows 100 acres from late June through late October.

Henry said this season's abnormal heat and drought made it a challenging year.

"If we can get some varieties better-suited to handle those climatic conditions, it will go a long ways toward quality and yield," he said.

Pointing to low mid-August broccoli prices, Henry said East Coast retailers would prefer to purchase eastern broccoli but at the end of the day, price remains the determining factor.

"There's a lot of demand for eastern broccoli," he said. "It seems to be more localized. Demand for broccoli doesn't seem to be increasing. Demand for broccoli grown on the East Coast is increasing."

The project's other goals include developing a large grower base and working to improve distribution channels.

"Much of the potential production capacity is on farms that could produce tens of acres per year, but larger customers need a base of hundreds of acres and lower risk of supply gaps than individual growers can provide," according to the study's proposal. "Customers expect year-round supply, but individual production areas have short seasons; coordinating distribution from multiple regions is necessary to meet customer expectations."

The growing food-hub movement could be a vehicle for addressing those limitations, according to the project.