You either love them or loathe them, but for one East Riding farmer they now provide the lion’s share of his income and as Christmas approaches it is manic on the farm as he prepares to meet what is always a massive demand.
John Clappison of Park Farm, Risby, near Beverley has his mobile phone almost permanently stuck to his face at this time of year with customers ordering their supplies from the 250 acres of sprouts he grows and markets.
Half of all sprouts eaten annually in this country are consumed in December and Mr Clappison’s sprout acreage produces four per cent of the total UK market.
“I’m the ultimate Brussels sprout geek,” he said.
“We live and breathe sprouts and harvest them for six months of the year. They are healthier for you than fruit. Gram for gram there is five times as much vitamin C in a sprout as there is in an orange.
“We started growing them in 1976, which wasn’t the best year to start as the country was suffering drought conditions.
“We had around 30-40 acres of sprouts at the time and we originally supplied Bird’s Eye’s freezer factory, but today everything we supply goes fresh and we are Morrisons main supplier as well as packing for Aldi and some of Waitrose’s outlets. We also supply local wholesale markets and the catering world.”
Mr Clappison farms around 1,000 acres in total, including spring barley grown for seed, winter wheat, winter barley and vining peas, as well as looking after a number of other farmers with a stubble-to-stubble contracting service.
His grandfather Wilfred came to Park Farm in 1932 when the farm ran to just 200 acres. He took over from his father Peter and his sprout business has mushroomed or rather, sprouted.
He is now amongst the 15 largest sprout growers in the UK.
He said: “Sprouts are a very specialist crop that requires specialist machinery.
“Potato and carrot harvesters are very similar to each other but sprouts are much more labour intensive.
“Each sprout has to be cut off the stem separately.
“There is just one sprout harvester manufacturer, a Dutch company, and I have four harvesters that are all in action in the lead-up to Christmas.”
In the fields around Risby and Little Weighton these strange, low-lying sprout harvesters move across John’s acreage pulled by tractor, with a team of pickers working hard taking the sprouts from the stems as they sit under cover to shield them from the depths of winter.
“It’s cold, hard, wet work, particularly after the week we’ve just had. About this time of year I have around 30 working here either in the fields or the grading and packing lines,” he said.
‘We’re fortunate that on the Wolds land there is a foot of topsoil with chalk underneath that allows good drainage that allows us to harvest in extreme weather conditions, but we also have heavier land too that is not so easy at this time of year.”
It’s not only the difficulties faced by getting machinery and pickers into sodden, waterlogged and very muddy fields that is sometimes a worry for the farmer.
“Sprouts don’t like puddling either. They don’t like their feet getting wet and in the winter they are often stood like that. We also had a poor planting season this year, although the impact of that was sufficient to improve the price per tonne.”
Sprouts grow at Park Farm and other fields for 10 months of the year as there are a number of varieties all planted at separate intervals.
“Sprouts tend to develop quite quickly, usually within three months, and they can also survive healthily even on limited hours of daylight. Their stem typically grows to around 2-3 feet. We grow 12 varieties and each has its own time slot.”
“The general public probably wouldn’t notice the difference in taste from one variety to another, but I do. We breathe a collective sigh of relief on December 22 when we have fulfilled all the Christmas orders, but it doesn’t last for long.
“We start up again on Boxing Day.”