‘I think of sprouts every day’: inside the Dutch Christmas vegetable growing factory

In the world of Christmas vegetables, nothing is more divisive than Brussels sprouts.

And here, as I look at a factory in the Netherlands, they’re everywhere.

It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but recreated in bud shape.

They roll along conveyor belts, are poured into huge machines and fall into chutes.

They are photographed and lifted, sized and sorted, packaged and cooled.

It is relentless, like watching the flow of green magma. As more and more buds are delivered from the farms, they are fed into the machines, and so the slow march continues.

If you like buds (spoiler alert: I do) this is a magical sight.

Buds of all sizes are dotted around us, divided into huge wheeled tubs that fill up in minutes. The Dutch love the little ones. Bigger off to Germany.

And there, in the middle, are the containers of the British. We love the smaller Brussels sprouts with their crunchy taste.

Beautiful buds as described to me.

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The International Center for Bud Transplantation

Peter van’t Woudt is site manager at the Primeale plant in the Netherlands – the global center for bud-growing.

When the buds roll down, he constantly studies them, running his hand across the pot as it fills.

This is a crucial time of year in the world of Brussels sprouts.

“We’re running 24 hours a day,” he said, looking around his factory.

“This is the time of year when we all have to work hard because everyone wants buds. But here, we’re a team.”

On a good day, the buds can take 34 hours to make it from entering this plant to the shelves of a British supermarket, to being picked up soon after.

British shoppers are thought to buy approximately 750 million buds over the Christmas period, but only half of them will be eaten.

It’s a vegetable you either love or hate, and yes, even inside the bud plant I’ve met some people who love them, despite spending all day staring at the buds, and others who just can’t stand the taste.

Primeale plant in the Netherlands - the world center for bud cultivation

How do you even harvest sprouts for the winter?

Then there’s Jack’s Gravemade, whose job it is to use infrared cameras to weed out bad shoots.

He said he used to hate them as a kid, but now he’s a devoted fan.

He said this has been a difficult year for them, as the long hot summer takes its toll on the buds.

Last year, only about 8% of shoots were considered unacceptable: now twice that.

This is difficult for farmers. Half an hour away, we’re standing in a muddy field, talking to Frederik Sonnefeld, the product manager at Primeale who oversees the Brussels sprouts, and she’s worried.

Her parents worked for Baraem, and so did their parents before.

There’s nothing you don’t know about this stuff, which is helpful because all I really know is how to cook and eat it.

Shoots grow out of the ground – germinate, really – on all sides of a thick stalk.

Primeale plant in the Netherlands - the world center for bud cultivation

To harvest it, a slow-moving cart drives along the vegetable line, and four people are seated in the front.

Huge cutters cut the stalk at ground level, which is then manually lifted and inserted into a hole where a hidden machine separates the buds from the stalk.

The problem is, you can’t do any of this if the Earth freezes over. And right now it’s cold, which is why Mrs. Sonnefeld is worried.

“I’m nervous because this is such an important time of the year, but we can’t do anything if it’s too cold. We need to harvest as much as we can but…”, she shrugged and gave a slightly worried smile.

“They need our care and our love.”

Harvesting Brussels sprouts in the Netherlands
Harvesting Brussels sprouts in the Netherlands

“I think about the buds every day.”

There is, of course, nothing you can do about the vagaries of nature.

Summer has been tough, she explained, but it wasn’t the only problem.

Rising energy prices have increased the cost of agriculture, as has inflation in the labor market. Buds are an expensive business these days.

Ms. Sonneveld is a big fan of the sprout taste, though she seems puzzled when I ask if she eats them every day.

Frederick Sonnefeld
Frederik Sonnefeld is a big fan of the bud taste

She replied, “I think of them every day, but I don’t always eat them.” Maybe too wise.

She offers me what she considers the most beautiful example she can find – the perfect size, with no flaky leaves and a lustrous luster.

She said, “Bling, bling,” and handed it over. Not, if I’m being honest, an expression I’ve ever associated with Brussels before.

But it is indisputably a good-looking bud. It’s the one I keep for our TV roundup, which I’ll get to shortly.

The perfect Brussels sprouts
The perfect Brussels sprout

The truth is that an enormous amount of time, effort, money, passion and planning goes into bringing the humble bud to your table. They are loved and cherished, coaxed into growing, and then scurrying to your table.

And all for something half of you wouldn’t want. It’s a tough life, being a Brussels sprout.

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