If you're in the Spalding area of Lincolnshire, it is quite likely that you’ll drive past a field farmed by Martin Tate and his two business partners. Martin farms a total of 16,000 acres: all owned, rented or contracted by Martin’s business, Lincolnshire Field Products.
Martin farms an array of crops from sugar beet, potatoes and cereals to brassicas such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages and Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts cover 551 acres of Martin’s land; he grows 19 varieties in total.
The harvest runs from August right through to March, depending on how harsh the winter has been. Martin explains: “The old wives tale says that Brussels sprouts are better after a frost, but many varieties have been bred to cope with all of the weather conditions that we have here in the UK.”
Harvest consists of four workers sitting in a machine that travels along the field in the direction of the crop. The workers cut the stalks at ground level with blades operated with their feet. These stalks are fed into the machine that cuts the buttons off the stalk and into the hopper; the sprouts are transferred from the hopper to a trailer that transports them to the factory for grading and packing.
In the factory, they are graded depending on size: the smaller sprouts below 25mm are used in frozen products, 25mm-35mm are sent to retailers and sprouts over 35mm in size are sold to wholesale.
Martin explains the Christmas trend: “At Christmas, most retailers have moved into selling stalks. So in October, we identify particular varieties in specific fields that we feel will be bordering on perfection by December time. We harvest them at Christmas by hand and sell them in a plastic sleeve”.
Martin says that consumption of Brussels sprouts is on the increase; brassicas on the whole are being consumed more. However, Christmas time is when demand is at its highest. “On a normal week in October, we’ll sell 25 tonnes of sprouts, whereas at Christmas, in a week, we’ll be selling 1,000 tonnes”. Sales are always helped along by celebrity chefs cooking up a Brussels sprouts storm: the ‘Delia effect’ comes in handy for sales.
Martin is positive about Brexit; the exchange rate has enabled him to advertise his produce to countries across Europe such as Portugal and Spain. “Buyers from Italy have said that they can get cheaper produce from the Dutch but they’re willing to pay a higher price for my premium product,” he says.
Brussels sprouts may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Martin’s recommendation is to keep it simple: “Just steam them off and then throw them in a pan with some salty bacon – it really lifts the flavour of the sprouts; nothing too dramatic!”