CITRA, Fla. — An earth-friendly little cucumber may be poised to take over the shelves in your produce aisle, thanks to researchers at the University of Florida.
The beit alpha cucumber — a small, sweet-fleshed vegetable favored by consumers in the Mediterranean and recently popular in Europe — is beginning to find its way to American supermarket shelves, due to the efforts of researchers at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
The cucumber is a perfect fit for Florida greenhouse farmers, who can grow the vegetable year-round without fertilizer runoff or pesticides.
“Beit alpha cucumbers yield three times as much fruit as European cucumbers in greenhouse conditions,” said UF biologist Nicole Shaw. “That’s important when you’re growing hothouse fruit, because the overhead costs are relatively high.”
Shaw and Dan Cantliffe, a professor of horticulture at UF, brought the beit alpha to the U.S. four years ago, spawning a new industry that feeds a growing demand for the vegetable, particularly in areas with large immigrant communities.
“This is just a better cucumber than the one you’re used to seeing on the store shelves,” said Cantliffe. “If you’re from a country where this cucumber is the standard, you’ll seek it out at the supermarket.”
Descended from a vegetable that grows wild in the dry climate of the Middle East, the beit alpha was developed by breeders on an Israeli kibbutz. While it is much smaller than the cukes you’ll find at your local grocery store — measuring about six inches fully grown — the beit alpha is packed with sugars that give it a sweeter, stronger flavor than most European varieties. More importantly, it can hold moisture well, a trait that gives it a long shelf life.
Shelf life has long been a problem for cucumber consumers in the U.S. and Europe. The Dutch cucumber, long the standard Western grocery stores, loses moisture quickly and is typically sold wrapped in plastic. That’s a turn-off for consumers, who like to feel vegetables before buying them. So grocery stores began switching to large, thick-skinned “slicers” that can last longer on shelves without wrapping.
“These slicers are there because they look good on the shelves, and not because they’re the best cucumbers,” Cantliffe said. “The beit alpha has a lot more flavor and a thin skin — and it’s burpless. Once it gets introduced to a new market, it tends to take over that market, because it’s just a better product.”
The beit alpha was recently introduced in Europe, Cantliffe said, and now dominates the cucumber market there.
Under field conditions, the beit alpha doesn’t grow well outside the warm, dry climate of the Middle East. But IFAS researchers have found they can grow this and several other crops economically in an innovative type of greenhouse imported from Israel.
Most greenhouse farmers grow their plants in expensive glass structures with heating and cooling systems that consume lots of energy, particularly in countries with chilly winter temperatures. But Israeli farmers have developed polyethylene-covered greenhouses equipped with vents that allow heat to escape with only the wind to pull it. In places with mild winters, the Israeli greenhouses cut climate-control costs to almost nothing.
Cantliffe believes these greenhouses are the wave of the future for Florida agriculture. With urban development rapidly overtaking some of Florida’s choicest farmland, he said, growers will face increasing pressure to grow high-value crops on tiny plots of land. And with a growing number of consumers demanding crops grown without pesticides, he said, greenhouse-grown produce should become more popular in coming years.
Growing plants indoors usually eliminates the need for chemical pesticides or soil fumigants, Cantliffe said. Greenhouse crops are grown in soil substitutes such as perlite, a kind of volcanic rock, so they’re not susceptible to soil-borne diseases. And because excess water and fertilizer can be collected and put back into the greenhouse’s irrigation system, there’s no fertilizer-laden runoff.
“You can’t market greenhouse crops as organic, because they’re grown with fertilizer,” Cantliffe said. “But the effect is about the same. Greenhouse agriculture is very environmentally friendly.”
Cantliffe said he foresees a major shift toward greenhouse agriculture when farmers are no longer able to use methyl bromide, a widely-used soil fumigant that is expected to be banned in upcoming years because it is linked to damage to the ozone layer. To that end, Cantliffe and other UF researchers are refining methods for using the Israeli greenhouses for major Florida crops such as strawberries.
They’re also working to import new crops, like the beit alpha, that have proven successful in greenhouse production elsewhere in the world. Two years ago, they introduced local growers to the Galia muskmelon, an Israeli-grown fruit similar to a cantaloupe, but with a more intense flavor. Shaw is currently researching the use of the greenhouse to grow specialty varieties of squash.
So far, the beit alpha has been the project’s biggest success. At least two Florida growers have picked up the crop, Shaw said, and are supplying restaurants and high-end grocery stores. Two supermarket chains, Publix and Kash-n-Karry, have also begun stocking the cucumbers at some of their stores, she said.
Shaw said greenhouse growers have had their best success with new or exotic foods that field growers can’t provide. The beit alpha falls into that category, she said, but it could soon become a standard part of the American diet.
“There’s no reason why this couldn’t take off the way it has in Europe,” Shaw said. “The beit alpha is just a good cucumber. Once people become familiar with it, they’ll make the switch.”