Demand for Brussels sprouts is booming


Issue Date: October 12, 2016
By Kevin Hecteman
Workers harvest Brussels sprouts last week at Steve Bontadelli’s farm in Santa Cruz County. Bontadelli grows and contracts nearly 600 acres of Brussels sprouts, and he is hustling to keep up with ever-growing demand for the vegetable.
Photo/Richard Green
Steve Bontadelli, is a fourth-generation farmer in Santa Cruz County. His father and uncle got serious about raising Brussels sprouts, right, in the 1960s. “They made the decision to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond rather than the small fish in the big pond,” he said.
Photos/Richard Green
Brussels sprouts used to be seasonal—harvested mainly for fall and winter consumption—but it’s now in demand year round.
Photo/Richard Green

Remember when kids made funny faces at the dinner table when they were presented with a plate of Brussels sprouts?

Yeah, not so much anymore. These days, people are eating them faster than Steve Bontadelli can grow them.

Despite expanding his acreage beyond the Santa Cruz area, "we still haven't been able to catch up with demand," he said. "The market is still strong. But we're doing our best."

Santa Cruz County had 1,129 acres planted to Brussels sprouts in 2015, according to the county's crop report. Those acres produced about $16.4 million worth of sprouts. About 300 of those acres in the Santa Cruz area have Bontadelli's name on them; other growers he works with have close to 300 acres among them. Through a partnership, Bontadelli has additional land in Oceanside and Mexico for winter planting and harvesting.

So far, 2016 has been kind.

"It looks really good," Bontadelli said of his crop. "We started harvesting by hand in July; that's just now winding up as we're moving into the machine harvest part. Quality's been excellent. It was a perfect growing summer because of all the fog we had. They really like that cool summer weather."

Too much heat results in leafy, fluffy sprouts, he added. Buyers should look for "a nice green color, no yellow leaves, firm compact heads, inch and a quarter or so in diameter."

As of last week, a 25-pound carton of Brussels sprouts was going for $30, still a high price, Bontadelli said.

"Records have been broken for the last couple of years," he said. "It was $40 for a month last year, which a few years ago was unheard of."

The harvest in Monterey County is looking good, too.

"So far, production here in Salinas and Monterey County has been off to a great start," said Katie Harreld, sales manager and Brussels sprouts commodities manager at Ippolito International in Salinas. "We're seeing very good yields, very good quality, and production continues to pick up each week as we get more and more into the fall and ready for the big holiday pushes we get in November and December."

Ippolito has sprouts growing in Monterey County, Oxnard and Mexico to help keep up with demand. Acreage has increased each year, Harreld said. She attributed the growing popularity of Brussels sprouts to chefs looking for new dishes to prepare.

"You're seeing Brussels sprouts on so many menus now in restaurants, on a lot of the cooking shows that you see on TV and a lot of the food magazines," Harreld said. "They're being prepared so many different ways now. The creativity the chefs are using is giving people more ways to taste them than they ever did before—they were just getting steamed and boiled—but it's just each year the demand and the pull just gets larger and larger. They've almost become an everyday vegetable."

That growth led Bontadelli to look for ways to boost production. One way is to begin harvesting earlier in the year.

"The reason we hand-harvest is to get them sooner," he said. "The plant naturally develops from the bottom up. In order to machine-harvest them, they all need to be the same size. So you go in, you pinch the terminal bud on the plant about 60 days before your harvest time. The sprouts on the bottom are maybe a half-inch diameter. That stops the plant from growing, and the sprouts all even up, become about the same size on the stem, so that you can pretty much harvest everything that's on the plant.

"So you pick them by hand … the bottom ones get to be an inch, inch and a quarter in diameter, and you just pick the bottom two or three rings. You water them, you come back a couple of weeks later and pick another couple of rings and work your way up the plant as the sprouts mature, which allows you to start harvesting in 90 days instead of 150 days that you have to wait for them to be all the same size.

"It's a lower-volume thing," Bontadelli said. "There didn't used to be very much demand in June or July for Brussels sprouts. It was more corn or watermelon."

Bontadelli is a fourth-generation farmer; his father and uncle developed the Brussels-sprout operation in the 1960s, he said.

"They were growing strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, a lot of the things that we grow here on the Central Coast," Bontadelli said. "When the Brussels sprouts started becoming popular in this area, we found that they grew very well. They made the decision to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond rather than the small fish in the big pond."

Ippolito is another of those big fish. The company describes itself as the largest grower and shipper of fresh-market Brussels sprouts in North America. Harreld said her company sends the vegetables all over the United States and into Canada; others find their way onto cruise ships sailing out of Florida. Harreld said her company has been able to keep up with demand, but it's not easy.

"One of the challenges with Brussels sprouts is they're a very long crop, from when it's planted to when it's harvested," Harreld said.

"Brussels sprouts can be a six- to seven-month crop depending on the time of year," she added. "That can pose a challenge when trying to keep up with that demand because it's hard to make a quick reaction. You've got to be really on top of your numbers and your plantings."

Bontadelli, of course, highly recommends adding these sprouts to one's diet.

"They're really good for you," Bontadelli said. "They have more vitamin C than an orange, high in (vitamin) A and folic acid, a lot of anti-cancer benefits, too," he said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.