The Season for Sprouts

Love them or hate them, there’s no denying Brussels sprouts are the ultimate Christmas vegetable. In fact, each Christmas, we munch our way through around 100 million sprouts, and a good chunk of that number is supplied by Anthony and Enda Weldon from their farm in North Dublin. Much like Santa’s elves, December means serious overtime for the Weldons –  as they aim to ensure a serving of sprouts makes it onto dinner plates around Ireland. Read on to find out how they do it.

When it comes to sprouts, the Weldon brothers have a lot of pedigree. They’ve been growing them for decades. “The farm has been in the family for around four generations,” Anthony says. “It was traditionally vegetable and cereal growing, but it’s only in the last few decades we decided to concentrate on sprouts specifically.”

“They’re obviously originally from Brussels, but sprouts would have been grown in Ireland from the early part of the last century,” he explains. “My grandfather grew them and he was a young man in the 1916 Rising.”

Brussels sprouts will certainly be making an appearance in the Weldons’ Christmas spread. “I would eat them three times a week,” Anthony says. “The traditional way is to cook the sprouts in the same way as bacon and cabbage, with the sprouts done in the bacon water.”

And younger generations are finding new ways to spice up the sprout with creative cookery. “Just yesterday, my nephew made up a sprout salad with maple syrup and beetroot and it was absolutely delicious,” Enda explains. “Everyone was filling their plates.”

Along with daring new recipes, modern growing techniques and varieties have contributed to a serious uptake in the humble sprout’s reputation. “We plant them a lot earlier than we did traditionally, and we grow them now on a slower regime,” Enda explains. “That way, they use all the natural trace elements that are in the ground.”

“The varieties we have now are a lot sweeter,” Anthony says. “I think that’s what put people off them years ago. They were used as a threat, ‘We’ll give you sprouts if you don’t behave yourself!’ but I think that’s changing now. Thankfully for us,” he laughs.

Preparing for the Christmas Rush

December is definitely the busiest season for the Weldons – with around 50% of their production geared towards the Christmas rush. “The actual volumes that go through in Christmas week are easily twenty times what goes through in a normal week,” Anthony says. “In a normal week, one harvesting machine will suffice but on Christmas week, we need three.”

“We’re coming into the mad season now,” Enda says. “It’s very different from normal operations during the year because we have to take on a lot more people and train them. And we put the show in operation ‘round the clock for about 8 or 9 days. We harvest, size grade, quality grade, pack, and deliver all within around 24 hours. You have to be able to get it done when the crunch comes at Christmas.”

 

A Unique Challenge

And the sprout itself is a tricky customer, as Anthony explains, “It’s probably the most difficult brassica (plants belonging to the mustard family) to grow. The sprouts themselves are fully exposed to the elements at all times. “

This year, a lack of sunlight during the summer has contributed to a sprout shortage across Europe. “We had a reasonably good growing summer,” Anthony explains, “but because we had a lack of sunshine, the crops have tended to grow higher to (reach the) light this year. And as a result, we’ve had a smaller sprout size.”

 

The Benefits of Flexible Finance

Because of the seasonal nature of their work, the Weldons often need fast access to farm finance. “AIB are a huge part of our business, especially in terms of leasing arrangements,” Enda says. “When you’re cropping, you’re taking a chance every year. We personally take that risk, but the bank also takes the risk with us.”

“We’ve availed of financing from AIB over the last twenty years and we’ve always found them very flexible and easy to deal with,” Anthony says. “Sometimes opportunities arise when you need quick decisions. And you need fast clearance from the bank if you’re going to finance something.”