July 2017

The Nation Reviewed

A near-impossible sell

By Patrick Witton
Sprout farmer Bruce Adams has created one of Australia’s more unlikely oversized highway attractions

Even in Australia, where oversized highway attractions come in many forms and varying standards of quality, Bruce Adams’ creation is worth a double take. Not because his is as large as, say, Goulburn’s Big Merino (15.2 metres), or as frightful as the Giant Koala at Dadswells Bridge (14 metres, 12 tonnes, stern expression). The reason cars in Coldstream, on Melbourne’s eastern fringe, may slow down is because those inside have just spotted a noble attempt at a near-impossible sell.

Bruce’s desire to build the world’s biggest brussels sprout did have some logic, and history, behind it. In 1960 the Adams family bought their property of rolling fields; a decade later, Bruce’s father and uncles took a punt and sowed their first crop of brussels sprouts with seeds imported specially from Holland. It was a risky move away from the family’s traditional focus – that other Brassica oleracea, cabbage.

As the grey-mopped, sun-smudged Bruce explains, “Most people can grow cabbages in their back garden, but they can’t grow sprouts. Cabbages you grow for two to three months and you harvest them and that’s it, but sprouts can be in the ground for six months. And if you have something bite a cabbage [on the] top leaf, you hardly notice it. Get that same bite on a sprout, if the insect decides he likes it, well, that’s that. It’s useless.”

The challenges would also continue during harvest, which the Adams family found was best done by hand. For this task Bruce now employs a crew of Vietnamese. (“They work like machines!”) Even in Coldstream’s notorious morning temperatures, they can be seen pushing themselves backwards through crop rows on mud-caked trolley seats, being paid by the bucket. By mid July the Adams’ workforce is “flat out”, and well on the way to the average annual yield of 64 million sprouts: a sum that was once the largest in the southern hemisphere, until the Samwell family in the Adelaide Hills took the title.

The signing of the Korea–Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2014 saw brussels sprouts’ value as a commodity rise from $16,000 to almost $1 million in less than two years, but the effect on the Adams family was short-lived.

“There was a bit of a rush from South Korea,” Bruce recalls. “All of a sudden they started buying up. And then they stopped! And we discovered that they bought too many at once and they had a whole stack stored in the warehouse over there.”

So the Adamses are hardly ostentatious sprout tycoons, and their property has nothing on the neighbouring estate (600-metre cypress hedge, century-old gardens, restaurant, high tea every Wednesday) that was once home to Dame Nellie Melba. Nevertheless, Bruce says he and his family are “rich” because of where they live. The farm has a charming ramshackle feel. There are strange agricultural contraptions scattered about, and a rusty split-screen bus parked near the packing shed. “Many years ago when we had local, mainly female, pickers, we used to pull the bus around the paddock with a tractor, and that was their morning-tea and lunch room,” Bruce says. “But the Vietnamese don’t stop for lunch and morning tea; they use [the bus] as a change room when they come to work.”

And draped over the undulating terrain is a vast blanket of the 70-centimetre-high plants that, with the clusters of sprouts on each stem, look like trippy green lagerphones.

Although brussels sprouts’ stocks have been constantly bankable, Bruce always felt that his crop could trend further. He had watched as more and more weekend traffic sped past his farm: city escapees heading east in search of Yarra Valley wine, cheese, gin and other comestibles. How could he tap into such a market when his product was on so many people’s hate list? The first attempt at luring custom was to offer farm-direct sales. Then, after Bruce spotted a rather large strawberry in Koonoomoo, inspiration struck. “I thought, Oh, maybe we should have a big sprout.”

As if it were part of the plotline of a quintessential Australian family movie, Bruce’s desire to build a big one was, of course, stymied by local authorities. “There were a lot of issues with the council. Not in relation to his height [4 metres], but with where I could put it. I wanted it at the front of the property but they wouldn’t let me put it there. They wanted it back further. They wanted it way back ’cos they basically said to me in the end, ‘You can have it but we really don’t want people to see it.’”

Although Arthur Sprout, named for Bruce’s father, is indeed positioned about 20 metres from the highway, his exuberance (cheeky grin, jaunty hat, thumb aloft) makes up for his compromised location. The big brussels sprout was unveiled in 2015 during another of Bruce’s marketing ventures: the inaugural Sprout Fest. Every year, except last year when Bruce’s daughter was getting married (“We couldn’t do both!”), the Adams farm gate is swung open for a day of tours, tractor rides, a flatbed-truck stage for local musicians, a scarecrow competition, a petting zoo and produce stalls. Bruce also sets aside a plot of sprouts for kids to stumble through and snap off fresh bulbs. In the humid haze, and with happy tackers hidden beneath the plants’ leafy crowns, the scene has a friendly Children of the Corn feel.

One mother, whose three youngsters were last seen deep in the field, was clearly enjoying the outing.

“We had to come, so when the kids say, ‘We never do anything fun,’ we can say, ‘That’s not true. We took you to the brussels sprout festival.’”

The day also includes sprout-cooking demonstrations – not that this interests Bruce. “I must admit I’m not a huge fan of brussels sprouts, but I do eat a lot of raw ones.”

Patrick Witton

Patrick Witton is The Monthly’s production editor.

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