A few weeks back I wrote about the benefits of growing leguminous crops. Planted on millions of acres around the world and consumed in some form by a majority of humans, beans and peas are an incredible example of how humanity can grow healthy, ecologically sustainable food.
Broccoli, on the other hand, is only recently being understood as a “miracle crop”.
There are numerous common food crops in the Brassica family, including Cabbage, Mustard, Arugula, Kale and Brussel Sprouts. They all provide numerous health benefits, but it turns out Broccoli has an extra dose of the sulfur compounds that have been proven to help fight cancer (as do Brussel Sprouts). This discovery led agricultural researchers to start exploring the agronomic benefits of broccoli.
Recent research has found that growing brassica crops has numerous benefits to the soil as well as to crops planted after it. Brassicas produce large amounts of cyanide-related compounds when they decompose in the soil. These compounds kill important soil pests and disease-causing fungi that affect other crops farmers grow, such as strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes.
Crops like Cabbage or Kale is much less effective because there is little plant residue left when harvest is over: the leaves are the part of the crop that is harvested. Some farmers grow Mustard as a cover crop — the entire plant is turned back into the soil.
But broccoli is essentially both a cash crop and a cover crop, since only the head is harvested. The rest of the plant gets plowed under where it “fumigates” the soil. And it turns out there is another benefit to growing broccoli: the deep, vigorous roots pull nitrogen from below the level where most other vegetable crops can reach it, before it can leach into groundwater. Most of this “recycled” nitrogen remains in the soil for the next crop planted in the field.
And yet for all the benefits to human health and the environment, people don’t eat enough broccoli. Consumption nationwide has been flat since the early 1990s. And almost of the production happens in a few counties in California, despite the fact that broccoli can easily be grown almost anywhere in the U.S. at some point in the year.
Subsidies and other government support might seem like one way to help encourage farmers to grow more broccoli. But unless they were combined with a massive campaign to popularize the vegetable, the result would likely be an oversupply. Perhaps private investors could take up the cause of developing appealing new food products using lots of broccoli or even bio-pharmaceuticals.
Even on our small farm, we could easily grown more broccoli than we can sell — and we would like to. We’ve seen the benefits from growing it on a field the winter before we plant tomatoes, for example. But don’t worry, you won’t open your CSA box anytime this winter to find 10 pounds of broccoli in it. Just a few heads each week.