Apr 7, 2007
Ontario Grower Brings Ingenuity to Brussels Sprouts

From the road, it’s an idyllic setting. Rows of bright green Brussels sprouts stretch a full mile across this level field in Southwestern Ontario. The colors and coolness of fall surround them.

In the distance, a pair of harvesting machines crawl across this unexpected landscape. They draw closer, and you quickly realize that the throb of industry underlies the scene.

The 14 workers are harvesting sprouts. They’ll cover about 4 acres today and harvest close to 25 tons.

“We start harvest around the first of October, and we won’t be done until about Nov. 15 to 21,” said grower Dave Van Segbrook. “It’s tough work, stuffing these stalks all day … The offshore labor is an integral part of our industry.”

Van Segbrook has been growing sprouts since 2000 when he partnered with Jean Marie Laprise. Laprise has been growing the crop for 13 years. Together, they’re now growing about 175 acres of the high-value crop in the rich soils between Wallaceburg and Chatham, Ontario.

The term “stuffing” is an accurate description for the work of the harvesters, Mexican nationals who’ve been brought in through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

There is a two-row head on each machine. The stalks are cut and moved on conveyors to workers who are seated inside. They push them into specialized equipment that slice off the sprouts and deposit the stalks back into the field.

“The knife that strips the stalks is the only European component,” Laprise said.

Laprise and his staff members designed the harvesters. They’re the only two on the planet. He also came up with a pre-harvest treatment – a tractor-drawn machine with sets of rotating hose – that knocks off many of the leaves, making it easier for the harvest crews.

In Europe, brussels sprouts drop most of their leaves before harvest because of climatic differences, Van Segbrook said. There, the harvesters sit sideways instead of forward to the direction of travel, and grab each stalk as it is cut from the field.

The harvested sprouts are deposited into hoppers, but the work is far from over. At Laprise’s home farm, outside the little Francophone community of Paincourt, 40 workers are involved with prep work. Working in two shifts, they clean, sort, size, cool and pack the sprouts. At this point, they’re ready to be shipped to Ontario plants where they’re frozen with no further preparation. Some of the larger diameter sprouts are sold fresh through grocery retail chains.

Laprise grows the plugs for the sprouts in his greenhouse operation. Recognized as one of the most innovative farmers in Ontario, he normally keeps his various agricultural activities far from the spotlight.

The plugs are planted in May. Extensive management is required throughout the growing season and the harvest is not a sure thing. Laprise said he lost his entire crop in 1999.

Van Segbrook recognizes the challenges.

“It’s very expensive to grow. It’s a lot more difficult than tomatoes … It’s not for he meek and mild. There’s no crop insurance available for this,” he said.

A combination of Treflan, cultivation and hoeing controls the weeds. Insect pressure is another big concern. The diamond-backed moth, cabbage looper, and a variety of other insect pests can cause damage. Van Segbrook credits his employee Susan Loewen, who has been trained as a crop scout, for coming up with the right spray schedule.

“We only spray when the insects reach a certain threshold; we usually spray a couple times a month,” Van Segbrook said.

Van Segbrook said he wouldn’t be able to produce brussels sprouts and his other crops without dedicated employees.

“There are 50 people here every day plus another 10 that come and go, depending on the need … We have a stellar group of people who understand the work,” he said.

Among the employees are members of two Mennonite families living in Canada, the Mexican nationals and Karen Boyles from Toronto. Boyles is with Frontier College, a nongovernmental agency that promotes literacy. After working a full day in the fields for pay, she volunteers to help the Mexicans improve their English skills.

Segbrook said that without his workers, jobs filled by Canadians at the
preparation and processing plants would likely be lost.

Brussels sprouts have become an important focus for Van Segbrook and Laprise, but they’re not the only focus. Van Segbrook also grows pickling cucumbers, processing tomatoes, sugar beets and field crops.

“Once we start in the cucumbers, we harvest pretty well every day until the end of November,” Van Segbrook said.

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