A near im­pos­si­ble sell

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - PATRICK WIT­TON

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.”

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