Do what you have always done, and you get what you have always gotten. That is not something that applies to Eelco van Putten. He has already pioneered purple sprouts, Kalettes, and cleaned sprouts. And now, this Dutch Brussels sprout grower has the very first optical MAF Roda sprout sorting machine, developed in partnership with the Oxin Growers association.
The Van Putten facility sorting area is remarkably quiet; there is no one around. There, the sprouts are sorted according to size, shape, and external quality. Robots stack the crates with sorted sprouts three high, and these are removed automatically.
Derreck Bac and Eelco van Putten of Van Putten Agro at the optical sorter.
The company can put this new machine to good use. For years, the Brussels sprouts went to Derreck Bac's company, Springfresh, in Poland, where they were sliced by hand and then returned to the Netherlands. This new sorter means that is no longer necessary. The round and elongated sprouts are separated automatically, with the longer sprouts being processed mechanically onsite. The round sprouts are packaged whole. The company packages all its sprouts.
Sprout burgers, pesto
Van Putten also wants to begin focusing on adding value to their residual streams. "Burgers, pesto, and pizza bases made from Brussels sprouts, but also adding sprout leaves to meal salads; these are all possible applications. We're currently orienting ourselves, which should lead to great ideas. The optical sorting machine will certainly help," begins Derreck.
"We can now easily separate sprouts with a single brown spot from the rotten ones. That offers many possibilities for adding value to the product. Eelco has been doing residue-free cultivation for years. Sometimes that means more wastage. But should we find a way to use our byproducts, that's not such a bad thing."
Van Putten Agro grows Brussels sprouts on about 180 hectares. The company wants to make the Dutch season last year-round. "We haven't reached that point yet, but this year we tested sprouts we harvested in late January, and they were still saleable at the end of August. I hope that year-round Dutch sprouts will complete the sustainability picture. We have 1,800 roof-mounted solar panels, which are doing a great job preserving the sprouts for as long as possible," Derreck says.
Immediately sold after test run
The inspiration for this optical sorter came after Derreck visited a cherry farm in North America. "Oxin Growers had already asked me to see how we could improve the Brussels sprouts' quality, specifically product classifications. When I saw the cherry optical sorting machine, I thought: that could work for sprouts too."
The grower approached Dutch sorting machine builders, but to no avail. So he contacted MAF Roda, originally a French engineering firm that has gained a reputation mainly in fruit and citrus quality sorting. "They started working on it right away. The nice thing was they could use the same rollers they already use to grade dates and cherries."
"I flew to Toulouse after sending a large batch of good and bad Brussels sprouts to their plant there. When, after only one morning, I saw how well the machine quality-sorted, I was sold. It exceeded my expectations. The British company Tong Engineering already has sprout expertise in sprouts and provided the product supply," Bac explains.
The new sorter not only improves quality; it saves considerable labor too. "Depending on the quality of the Brussels sprouts, we save four to five people. The machine's now fully automated, and someone may still be present at peak times, but even then, it's a massive improvement. With manual sorting, there's a huge difference between the work done in the early morning and late afternoon."
"That's unavoidable. Last year we had a field with hail damage and 50% loss. It's simply impossible to remove all the damaged sprouts by hand; for a machine, that's no problem. Also, you can program the product classifications precisely. Customers can buy exactly what they want, plus our track & trace works perfectly," Derreck continues.
Favorable market conditions
The company is, thus, very confident about the new Brussels sprout season that began in August. "It's been very dry everywhere. We have irrigated the sprouts a lot which seems to be bearing fruit. However, the sprouts' growth has generally lagged. There's far less acreage in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, even less in Belgium."
"Supplies will be much lower, and the drought is already causing shortages. The market conditions, therefore, seem favorable, although that's always difficult to predict. Oxin Growers and its trading partners send our sprouts all over the world. We've built up a nice clientele in places like North America, the Middle East, and Hong Kong," says Derreck.
Residue-free cultivation, year-round in the Netherlands, and adding value to its byproducts: there seems to be no end to the company's ideas. "It's in our DNA to be at the innovative forefront. We're actually always testing whether things can be improved. You have to enjoy it. And not everything works out, but that's part of the job."
"I'm proud that we combine our expertise, making us true Brussels sprout specialists. By growing, packing, and processing ourselves, we've set up the chain as efficiently as possible. That mix ensures continuity and lets us provide our customers with a constant, high-quality product," Derreck concludes.