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Maine's crowning crop

Move over lobster, potatoes and blueberries. There's another food Maine is also known for: Broccoli.

Maine ranks among the top five broccoli-growing states in the nation, along with California, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Maine has consistently made the top five for about 20 years.

Come summer, the top producers - California and Arizona - stand down because the green, cruciferous vegetable wilts in extreme heat. But that's when Maine gears up because broccoli thrives in Maine summers, which typically have warm days but cool nights.

"Maine is probably the ideal climate to grow broccoli in the United States in the period of time we're in," said Matt Williams, a crop specialist with the Houlton office of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

From July and through the fall, much of the fresh broccoli sold in supermarkets along the East Coast comes from Maine, agricultural experts say.

Maine's broccoli prowess is well known to Maine's farmers and the grocery stores they sell to. But other Mainers may not be aware that much of the broccoli they've eaten over the past two decades is home-grown.

Now, however, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources is working to get the word out.

"Can we trust you with a secret? Maine has had a secret love affair going on for many years . . . with broccoli!" reads a July edition of The Maine Market Basket, a newsletter produced by the agriculture department and the Maine Nutrition Network. "With Maine's first crop of 2006 just starting to appear . . . this is the perfect time to share the love."

The harvest, which continues through fall, appears to be a good one, Emily Smith, broccoli production manager for Smith's Farm Inc., said recently. That Aroostook County farming operation, based in Presque Isle, is one of two major Maine broccoli growers.

AN 'ALMOST PERFECT' YEAR

Smith said farmers are reluctant to make predictions because Maine weather is unpredictable. However, she said, "I have to say this year has been almost perfect."

She said that the growing season started early this year and that northern Maine was spared the extreme hot temperatures that plagued the rest of the country. Broccoli, she said, "loves the Maine summer we have up here at the top of the world."

The logo for Smith's Farm Inc. features two Maine potatoes in the foreground with a large bunch of broccoli behind them. The image is telling because potato farmers up north were the ones who starting growing broccoli on a large scale back in the early 1980s, according to agricultural experts.

Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said farmers were trying out various crops as rotation crops for potatoes and found broccoli worked well, he said.

Farmers rotate crops because growing the same crop over and over on the same piece of land can deplete the soil of certain nutrients and lead to the buildup of pests and diseases. But broccoli, Libby said, "is in a different plant family from potatoes so they don't share many pests and diseases."

Now, he said, broccoli ranks third in Maine after potatoes and sweet corn in terms of the seasonal vegetables grown in the state.

Gary Lucier, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., said that U.S. Census of Agriculture statistics show that back in 1978 Maine reported just 33 acres planted with broccoli. By 1987, Lucier said, Maine had 2,367 acres and ranked fifth in the nation in terms of broccoli acreage harvested.

MAY PROTECT AGAINST SOME CANCERS

This year, Maine has about 5,500 acres of broccoli planted, said Mary Ellen Johnston, director of marketing and production development for the state Department of Agriculture. She said that, under ideal conditions, each acre can produce 8,000 pounds, which would result in a harvest of 44 million pounds.

Right around the time that Maine farmers were discovering the benefits of growing broccoli, consumers nationwide were discovering its health benefits. Not only is broccoli high in vitamins and minerals, but research by scientists at Johns Hopkins University suggests that a diet rich in broccoli may protect against certain cancers.

Broccoli also is high in fiber. Williams, the extension crop specialist, said another name for broccoli florets is "nature's little brooms" because of their efficient effect on the colon.

Lucier said that as of the year 2005, Americans were consuming 5.6 pounds per capita of broccoli each year.

The Maine Department of Agriculture estimates that Mainers consumed more than 6 million pounds of broccoli last year, much of it from Maine.

Smith's Farm started growing broccoli 25 years ago. "I was about 7 when they started," Smith said.

The family-run Smith's Farm, which began as a single farm in Mars Hill in 1859 but now has acreage in several other Aroostook County communities, also grows potatoes, wheat, barley and soybeans. The company's marketing and distribution arm is H. Smith Packing Corp., headquartered in Presque Isle.

The company, which also grows broccoli in Florida during the winter months, sells directly to grocery stores. Smith declined to discuss price.

ONLY A FEW LARGE-SCALE GROWERS

Hannaford Bros., a large supermarket chain based in Scarborough with stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts, buys Smith's broccoli from June through October, said spokeswoman Caren Epstein.

She also declined to discuss price, saying it varies too much, but added that Maine broccoli compares favorably in price to California broccoli because the freight costs are less. On Friday, conventionally grown broccoli crowns at the Hannaford store in Portland were selling for $1.99 per pound. Bunched broccoli with stalks was selling for $1.79 per bunch.

Williams, the crop specialist, said that broccoli is grown in Maine on a large scale only by a couple of growers because the crop requires a lot of human labor and specialized equipment that is only feasible for large farm operations. Aroostook County farmer Andy Ayer is the other large broccoli grower in addition to Smith's Farm, but could not be reached for comment.

Although the big growers are in northern Maine, broccoli is a statewide agricultural enterprise, Libby said.

In central Maine, for example, Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion and Winslow experiments with growing different broccoli varieties to see which do best under various conditions. "Our trials here are the most extensive ones in Maine," said Steve Bellavia, a vegetable production manager at Johnny's.

Also, Libby said, small farmers in central and southern Maine get into the act by growing broccoli to sell for the local market: farmstands, farmers' markets and grocery stores.

'IT'S A GOOD SELLER'

Farmer Daniel Price said he planted about a quarter acre of broccoli at Freedom Acres, his seven-acre farm in Freedom. The plant can be challenging for a small farmer to grow because it takes up a lot more space - Price estimated about 3 square feet per plant - than a vegetable like lettuce, he said.

However, Price, who was selling his organically grown produce recently at a farmers' market in Portland's Monument Square, said he grows broccoli because customers like it. "It's a good seller," he said.

One customer, Sarah Camille Wilson, 20, of Portland, bought several of the $3 per pound florets that she said could end up in a salad or pasta primavera.

She struggled to explain why she likes broccoli. She enjoys its taste and texture, she said, and likes the fact that it contains important nutrients such as calcium and folic acid.

In the end, Wilson concluded the answer was obvious. "It's broccoli," she said. "That's why I like it."

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

tnacelewicz@pressherald.com