Would growers rather fight than switch?

May 18, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

SOUTH BOSTON, VA — SOUTH BOSTON, Va. -- Deep in Virginia farm country, where tobacco has reigned supreme for generations, Charlie O'Dell proselytizes, county to county, farm to farm.

Not a preacher, but a horticulturist, his vision is of the future and it is leafy green.

For the last 12 years, Dr. O'Dell has tried to persuade tobacco producers to look beyond their golden-hued cash crop to . . . broccoli.

"Broccoli is the crown jewel of nutrition," says the associate professor from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg. "And I have a burning idea that broccoli in Virginia can succeed."

But turning his burning idea into the farmers' burning desire is a hard sell. Producers of a crop that winds up in cigarettes -- an embattled but lucrative business -- aren't going to give it up for an ugly green vegetable, anti-cancer properties or not.

Tobacco is a way of life for many in Virginia -- the fifth-largest tobacco producing state in the nation. And broccoli . . . well, it may not even be a popular side dish here.

When the broccoli proposal was broached, "I thought they were pulling my leg -- I didn't know what they were smoking or chewing," admits Bobby Conner whose Halifax County tobacco and cattle farm has been in his family since 1894.

"To farm land in the manner that your father did -- and your father's father and even before -- means something," says Mr. Conner, who is also Halifax County court clerk.

"Tobacco has paid for so much of what we have here, churches, schools, roads. It has educated my children and me," he says. "The habit of growing tobacco is harder to quit than the smoking of it."

But as unlikely as Dr. O'Dell's quest may seem, it is backed firmly by scientific research.

A 1982 U.S. Department of Agriculture study shows that broccoli and cauliflower, harvested in the fall, are the non-tobacco crops most likely to prosper in Virginia.

In addition, recent studies touting certain vegetables as havinganti-cancer properties have buffed broccoli's luster as a marketable health food.

At the same time, growing anti-smoking sentiments and increased competition in the world market have set the stage for a decline in tobacco income.

All of which makes the horticulturist nearly ecstatic.

"Broccoli's time is here!" he says. "We have known for years that broccoli is the crop that can do well here. And now, we have health studies on our side."

His goal is not to supplant tobacco, but to provide growers with supplemental income as demand for tobacco decreases.

Since it is planted in July and harvested in November, a few weeks after the tobacco fields are cleared, the two seasons dovetail nicely.

To be sure, Dr. O'Dell says, broccoli profits, as high as $600 per acre, don't compare to the $1,000 per acre that tobacco brings.

But as one long-time farmer put it gloomily: "No legal crop does."

Armed with facts from the 1982 USDA study, Dr. O'Dell travels from the Piedmont to the Chesapeake Bay, relentlessly talking broccoli toall who will listen.

The license plates on his "broccoli-green car," allude to the National Cancer Institute's advice to eat five servings of vegetables a day: "5ADAY4U."

And stacked on his back seat are copies of articles about sulforaphane, the compound in broccoli that is believed to prevent cancer, and a cooler of broccoli samples: stalks, florets and cole slaw.

The growers Dr. O'Dell visits, while polite, are skeptical.

Not all farmers can adapt, says Hudson Reese, whose family has farmed here since before the Revolution. "We farmers are kind of set in our ways," he says.

But tobacco production is down. Fifteen years ago, Virginians cultivated 61,670 acres of tobacco. By last year the total had fallen to 45,500 acres, state figures show.

In 1982, frightened by a market slump, farmers in three counties formed a cooperative to see what could be done. Their concern led to the USDA study that urged broccoli.

But to succeed, Virginians would have to go head to head with California and Maine, which produce most of the country's broccoli.

And competition is fierce: California, with year-round good weather,can grow at least two crops annually. Virginians can only produce one.

Nonetheless, about eight farmers, including Mr. Conner, gave broccoli their best shot.

In the early '80s, they sent a delegation to California and Maine "to spy," says Dr. O'Dell. And they built a state-of-the-art broccoli packaging plant in Halifax.

In 1984, then-Gov. Charles S. Robb proclaimed an official "Broccoli Week" to celebrate the "excellent Virginia product."

But by 1989, the broccoli boom was over: The tobacco market picked up, and consecutive bitterly cold seasons ruined broccoli crops. At its height, about 600 acres of broccoli were cultivated by tobacco farmers. Not much, Dr. O'Dell admits, but something to build on.

That was then, Dr. O'Dell says. Now he thinks Virginia is on the brink of a broccoli renaissance.

The marketplace, the scientific studies, the ever-rising popularity health food will rekindle interest among Virginia farmers.

"This time," Dr. O'Dell says, "it looks like it's for real. We've got the research, the equipment, the technology in place.

"I say, 'Get on the broccoli wagon.' "

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