Australia’s Brussels sprout industry is dominated by three great families: the Samwells, the Cranwells and the Adams Family. I kid you not.
And when I say “great”, I mean delightful, charming, and wholesome. We are not talking Packers, Smorgons and Lowys here: growing sprouts is not a path to prosperity. They are comfortable and happy, these three families, but they are not rich.
Australians scoff around 50 million Brussels sprouts a year, at 15-20c a pop, depending on the season and year.
It’s been a heartbreaking business down the years, but demand is growing rapidly at the moment because some culinary genius figured out that mixing them with melted butter and crispy bacon makes the sprouts rather more delicious than if you boil the crap out of the poor things and bung them on a plate next to (boiled) corned beef and carrots, as my sainted mother used to do.
But as often happens with a suddenly popular product, supply has grown too quickly even for the increased demand. Prices are down, and the Samwells, Cranwells and Adams are having a lean year. Oh well, she’ll be right.
You see, the Brussels sprout families do not operate a cartel, or a triopoly, and unlike with OPEC and oil, production and prices are not controlled.
The three families grow two-thirds of the national sprout crop: Leigh and Kent Samwell’s Eastbrook Farms, at Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills, is the largest, producing about 1500 tonnes a year; AE Cranwell & Sons, at Nairne also in the Adelaide Hills, produces 1200 tonnes a year and Adams Farms in Coldstream Victoria also produces 1200 tonnes.
Eastbrook Farms was started in 1952 by Ray Samwell and his brother in law Geoff Mortimer. Twenty years later when his two sons, Leigh and Kent, were of age, the three of them bought Geoff out and formed Samwell and Sons.
It was hard going in those early days at Summertown. Ray and Geoff had bought a block of uncleared land from Ray’s uncle and then cleared it by hand themselves and ended up with 60 usable acres, which they planted with everything from spuds, corn, gherkins, rhubarb, and, of course, sprouts.
The market garden did pretty well and by 1985 they were feeling a little hemmed in and decided to sell out of Summertown and buy a larger block at Mt Barker -- 250 acres.
“We thought it was Christmas,” says Leigh. “We had so much room.” Now they’ve got 150 acres. When they left Summertown they had 120,000 Brussels sprouts plants; now they have 1.6 million.
Ray passed away 20 years ago and Leigh and Kent now share the business with their own children -- the third generation are well truly ensconced. They have eight kids between them, and three of them are working in the business: Leigh’s son James and Kent’s two boys, Scott and Luke, and they all have young kids of their own.
Leigh and Kent have a simple and clear philosophy when it comes to succession planning: “It’s not fair if off-farm kids inherit an asset they didn’t work on.”
So the children other than James, Scott and Luke will inherit cash, which Leigh and Kent are building up now, and the three men working in the business will end up with one-third each.
Ownership won’t transfer until Leigh and Kent die; in the meantime they will “just fade away” -- not retire. At the moment they’re doing odd jobs about the place and providing guidance.
The Samwells sell their sprouts through six national distributors, one in each state. They’ve just put in a modern, automated packing line that actually photographs every single sprout to grade and size it.
Arthur Edward ‘Billy' Cranwell started growing fruit and vegetables in Ashton early last century. He was by all accounts a real ‘goer’ was Billy Cranwell, and his father gave him a block of land for a market garden with instructions to look after his unmarried -- and apparently less motivated -- brother and sister, Elsie and Jack.
Billy had two boys, Don and Maurice, and when they came home from school in 1948 and 1950, they worked on the farm with Billy, Uncle Jack and Aunty Elsie.
Like a lot of market gardeners in the Adelaide Hills at the time, the Cranwells grew everything, including daffodils and violets, and then one day they noticed that a neighbour who grew Brussels sprouts made enough in one week to buy a new Bedford truck.
“Right,” said Billy, “Sprouts are for us.” And they grubbed out their beautiful fruit trees and planted seven acres of sprouts. That was 1955. In 1969 they specialised in sprouts entirely and now they have 120 acres of them.
The ‘Eureka moment’ for the Cranwells came when some big floods in Queensland and Carnarvon wiped out that year’s winter vegetable crop for the eastern states, and the wholesalers came looking for Brussels sprouts in big numbers. They actually treated the growers well, apologising for not paying enough. Which made a change.
Maurice’s eldest son John came home in 1979 at the age of 16 and brother Robert came home in 1981, and both of them worked on the farm. The block in Ashton was pretty steep, and Maurice thought the boys would kill themselves with the tractor tipping over on them, so they moved to flat land at Nairne.
Maurice, John and Robert bought out the unmarried Uncle Dan in 1985, and now the three of them are equal partners in the business, with Maurice a less active 79 (his father Billy worked till he was 85).
They have only six customers -- the six national wholesalers -- the newest of them for 10 years and the oldest for 30 years.
“We’ve never signed a contract in our life,” says John. “Everything’s verbal. We’ve never done it for money. We just love the life and the sprouts -- you can have them any way you want.”
Adams Farms in Coldstream is run by Bruce Adams, a third-generation market gardener. His grandfather grew a full range of fruit and vegies in Bayswater, which was a country town in those days, and his four sons moved the business up to Coldstream in 1960, where they mainly grew cabbages.
They moved to sprouts exclusively in 1979 and Bruce calls his father Arthur the “guru of sprouts”. He got seeds from the Netherlands and developed new varieties, working till he was 85. Now Bruce and his uncle Raymond own Adams Farms; Bruce has five children and only one of them, Daniel, is in the business at this stage.
When asked why sprouts are such a good business, Bruce has a simple answer: “There are 700 acres of sprouts planted in Australia, and 12,000 acres of broccoli. If everyone in Australia ate Brussels sprouts, they’d get half a sprout per month. There’s scarcity.” (Except this year, of course, when everyone has got a bit carried away and grown too many.)
But why is there so much more broccoli than Brussels sprouts? Because sprouts are hard to grow and harvest. They grow on metre-long stalks and harvesting them mechanically is complicated (but not impossible).
And why are there only three dominant growers? Because there were two very bad years through which only the very dedicated survived.
In the early ‘90s there was a glut of sprouts and tremendous difficulty getting labour to harvest them because everyone was grape-picking at the time; 1992 was an especially terrible year.
And then the grubs that eat sprouts became resistant to the pesticide that everyone was using, and at the same time there were a lot of fungal diseases that left black spots on the sprouts. A lot of growers left in the industry then.
“It was a war of attrition,” says John Cranwell. “Only the truly committed stuck it out.”
And the truly committed to Brussels sprouts in this country are the Samwells, the Cranwells and the Adams Family.