Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.
There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting broccoli research at the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.
Since 1944, the Mountain Research Station has been located on 410 acres in Haywood County, but it first opened in 1908 in Swannanoa. This site offers researchers a good representation of soil types and elevations found in western North Carolina. Research projects include Christmas trees, burley tobacco, livestock, horticultural crops and, for the last five years, broccoli.
“Ninety percent of broccoli consumed in the eastern United States comes from California and other points west,” said Kaleb Rathbone, station manager. “That means most of our ‘fresh’ broccoli is actually iced down and trucked in. This research could lead to a significant East Coast broccoli crop.”
The station is in its fifth year of field trials as part of the Eastern Broccoli Project. Led by Cornell University in New York, other universities participating include N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Oregon State. The project is also supported by several seed companies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s vegetable laboratory.
The Mountain Research Station has about four acres dedicated to broccoli research. “Broccoli is a labor-intensive crop since it is harvested by hand,” Rathbone said. “Pests can also be a significant issue.”
Broccoli is evaluated in the field through visual observation. To unify the process, researchers developed a rating system that all collaborators could use when making field observations. “That way we are all working off the same metrics and color charts,” he added. “My perception of a shade of green might be different than another person’s.”
Broccoli is evaluated by the quality of the broccoli head, size of the beads on the broccoli head, color and taste. Samples are also rated on susceptibility to pests and disease. A sample is then sent for nutritional analysis. Since broccoli is a cool-season crop, heat tolerance is one of the characteristics researchers look for in varieties being tested. “Part of the rating process includes leaving the broccoli in the field and letting it over-mature and flower out. After this, not much left is edible. Any part of the crop that might be edible after the research is done is donated to the food bank,” Rathbone said.
The project is currently entering the third phase, with on-farm trials. Each phase involves narrowing down test varieties and planting on larger plots. “Growing broccoli on the East Coast is an opportunity for farmers,” Rathbone said. “It would be good for diversification and a good fit among other crops, especially cucurbits and tomatoes.”
Broccoli is harvested at the station in late August and September. The Mountain Research Station’s peak growing months are April through October, with a total growing season of about 160 days.