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Broccoli becoming staple crop in Va.’s Carroll Co.
By JANE W. GRAHAM
LAUREL FORK, Va. — Carroll County, Va. is a county of diversified farming with cabbage as a longtime staple crop for many growers.
Folks in Southwest Virginia and neighboring North Carolina have made it a family tradition to go to Carroll County to get at least one bag of the cabbage, known for its sweet flavor, every fall to see them through the winter.
Now there is another vegetable growing successfully here: broccoli.
James Light was one of the farmers who grew cabbage and still does; but a bad cabbage year made him start asking about broccoli.
Others in the area had tried it and said it was not possible. Light reasoned that cabbage and broccoli are alike in many ways and decided to give it a try.
The proof that it’s working for Light is in the tractor trailer loads he sends to two grocery chains, one in Southwest Virginia and one in the Washington. D. C. area.
During a morning of harvesting, Light, working with his daughter Ashley, son Justin and a crew of migrant workers, noted how the Blue Ridge mountains create a type of microclimate that provides cool nights and keeps the vegetable crop cool longer in the day than in other parts of the state.
The broccoli is taken to the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market in Hillsville, Va., Light said, to be cooled overnight, and prepared to be shipped to the grocery chains.
Food City, headquartered in Abingdon, Va., was one of the first grocery chains to begin selling produce identified as “locally grown” Light said, and was his first customer for broccoli. Later he added the Wegman chain in Northern Virginia.
Light said his family had farmed for generations but his parents decided not to do so and went to town to work.
However, the family farm stayed productive as he worked with his grandfather and uncle growing cabbage.
After the bad cabbage year, they let him try growing six or eight acres of broccoli and it grew well and sold well, he said.
This was at a time when fuel prices jumped dramatically and made shipping broccoli from California very costly, about $7,000 a tractor trailer load.
He explained that Food City is able to pick up this produce at the SWVA Farmers Market, usually the day after it is harvested and deliver it to stores in Virginia and Tennessee.
Drivers can back haul other produce, making transportation costs much less, he added.
Light has participated in field trials conducted by Cornell University where researchers are developing varieities best suited for the East Coast. and he said he’s gotten help from Danny Neel, marketing specialist for sales and market development with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in connecting with grocery chains.
With Neel’s help, Light’s broccoli is sold by the Wegman chain as “Virginia Grown.”
He and Neel worked with Moir Beamer at Virginia Producer, a broker who was able to deal with transportation.
“I like dealing with Wegmans,” Light said. They’ve got good people.”
According to Light, growing broccoli is not for the fainthearted.
He said there is a two-day window to harvest a crop when it is ready and one thunderstorm and rising humidity can ruin a whole crop overnight.
Having a market before planting is essential for success, he said.
The Lights grow their own broccoli from seed started in their three greenhouses in mid-February.
They begin transplanting about 20,000 to 22,000 plants per acre in mid-April and harvest from mid-June to October.
This year they have 40 acres of broccoli growing and 15 acres of cabbage. They also grow pumpkins.
Light said broccoli and cabbage are heavy feeders needing about 1,600 pounds of 10-20-20 fertilizer per acre for these crops.
They have a multi-year rotation to make the best use of their soil. The rotation includes following broccoli or cabbage with wheat or rye, then sod planting pumpkins.
When the pumpkins are harvested, the fields are put in grass and grazed by their beef cattle herd. After the grass and cattle, Light plows and starts again with broccoli and cabbage.
They cultivate these crops and hand weed if necessary.
He said they tried sod planting and it did not work. They also spray for insects and disease.
Light said they are GAP certified by USDA for good agrcicultural practices.
Some of those practices include adding chlorine to their irrigation water and washing the collection bins each time they are emptied during harvest.
Light said the crop is good this year thanks largely to having irrigation. The area has been in abnormally dry conditions for months.