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Eelco van Putten:

“Three weeks before Christmas, the sprouts race starts”

The smell of sprouts doesn’t have many positive associations, and the vegetable is often the start of many parent-child discussions about eating habits in families. Yet sprouts are a beloved vegetable all over the world, and this is even more true now that health aspects of vegetables are becoming more important. Sprouts do very well in that regard. But as long as not everyone loves sprouts, grower Eelco van Putten still has a mission: “Everyone should eat sprouts.” That’s why he doesn’t just grow green sprouts, but also kalettes and purple sprouts, which have a milder flavour.

Demand market
Eelco grew up among sprouts. When his father was 16 years old, about 55 years ago, he started growing the vegetable. Eelco and his cousin Joost have now taken over the business. In agriculture, winter months used to be fairly calm, but if you wanted to make some more money, growing sprouts was a good source of income. Most of those sprout growers have now stopped, and only a limited number of specialised companies remain. The reason for this is the heavy work, often outside, but it’s a difficult, expensive and long production with many risks as well.

Sprouts grow quickly, and so has Eelco’s company. His father started small from a shed with manual picking. Eelco’s company now has 125 hectares of sprouts. These are meant for the global market. The sprouts are exclusively sold via Van Nature to Combilo, Haluco, Levarht and Scherpenhuizen. Because of this, sales are wide both inside and outside of Europe.

Besides the production, which requires much work, the company also handles and packs the sprouts. The shed can be very cold. For shelf life and quality, temperature is kept at a constant 6 degrees Celsius. The first step in the handling process is the harvest, after which the products are cooled. The sprouts are then sorted by size and quality. Depending on the customer, the sprouts can be cleaned. Of 500 grammes of sprouts, only 350 grammes are left over after cleaning. The ready-to-consume sprouts are then packed in bags. Eelco: “In the Netherlands, uncleaned sprouts in bags of 500 grammes are sold, in Germany and France they sometimes want kilo packaging. Sometimes customers also want loose sprouts in crates, but regarding hygiene, flowpacking is the future.”

Fresh daily
Compared to larger types of cabbage, sprouts are a daily fresh product. They’re not kept in storage, but are harvested fresh daily throughout the winter. The time between harvest and sales is kept as short as possible by Van Putten. That is possible thanks to the good cooperation with distribution companies that take care of sales. After harvesting, the sprouts can be in shops two days later. For sprouts with a destination further away, such as Canada, transport per cargo-plane takes a day longer, so there are three days between harvesting and selling then. 

Eelco mostly grows larger-sized sprouts. “The Dutch actually prefer eating smaller sizes,” he says.He doesn’t know why that is, but it’s quite odd. Cleaning sprouts takes a lot of time. Larger sprouts are cleaned quicker, and you have to clean less sprouts per person. Small-sized sprouts are also needed for industry.

Sprouts race
The sprout season lasts from July to the end of February. The yields are much dependent on the weather, wetness in particular causes problems. Market demand in many countries also depends on the weather. “Orders start increasing once the weather turns colder,” Eelco explains. Sprouts are on many tables all over the world at Christmas, which is why Christmas is the peak period for sprouts. “We call the three weeks before Christmas the sprout race. It becomes so busy we work day and night.” The UK is a large buyer at that time, as they don’t want to take any risks regarding sprouts. Just after Christmas, demand tends to be a bit less. After a few weeks, however, it recovers again. “After the holidays, wallets are empty, and sprouts are a relatively cheap vegetable. It’s really a budget vegetable in winter.”

Sprouts are a difficult crop to grow. There’s a trend to grow sweeter varieties, but these tend to be affected by plagues of insects more. For the organic production, less sweet varieties, with a slightly more bitter flavour, are often grown. “Some people prefer these,” Eelco says. “The final flavour is also strongly dependent on the preparation method. Consumers could use some more support via tasteful recipes and ideas for new manners of preparing the sprouts.” Frost no longer has influence on flavour nowadays. It actually tends to level off the flavour a bit more, according to Eelco. “Sprouts also smell different right after frost, their typical smell is gone then.”

Very healthy
Sprouts are very healthy. The Dutch don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, but it wouldn’t even be that bad if they only ate sprouts. Sprouts contain a relatively high amount of vitamin K, and they’re chock-full of vitamin C (even more than oranges). Sprouts also contain plenty of other vitamins, minerals and fibres. Sprouts and other types of cabbage also contain glucosinolates, and they’re a good source of protein. “It’s almost a meat replacer,” Eelco says. He even has indirect proof. The cutting waste of his sprouts is eaten by his neighbour’s cows. “He supplies his milk to Campina, and they were wondering what his cows were fed, because their milk contains much more protein than cows that are given regular feed.” One disadvantage of sprouts is their effect on intestines. The small intestine can’t process raffinose, a sugar. That’s why the large intestine has to digest the raffinose, causing gassiness. 

Agriculturalists have been working hard on sprouts. As said before, they’ve made sweeter varieties, by purple sprouts are now also on the market. “When a sprout is green you can’t tell its flavour, but with purple sprouts you’ll always know how they taste. Purple sprouts are sweeter and taste more like nuts than the green ones,” Eelco explains. Another innovation is Kalettes, a cross between two very healthy vegetables: kale and sprouts.

More information:
Van Putten Agro
Eelco van Putten

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