While the draw of agritourism is the on-farm experience, it’s just as important to provide both the expected (sweet corn!) and unique quality produce. Unique experiences and products set your operation apart in the minds of your customers.
Sometimes unique means going back to the ways things used to be done – take Brussels sprouts. Growing up on the Infante family farm, we would top the plants and sell them “on the stalk”. Since the young leaves of Brussels sprouts taste similar to collards, we would market the topped leaf cluster separately as greens to be prepared like you would collards.
“What is the best time to top Brussels sprouts so that the ‘buttons’ size uniformly? What are the pros and cons of topping?”
Timing of topping is tricky. Earlier maturing varieties respond better to topping when the largest buttons are about 0.5-inch to less than 1-inch in size. This window seems to be about 30 to 60 days before expected harvest date. Topping more than 75-days before harvest is counterproductive according to Becky Sideman and Olivia Saunders of UNH Extension. They recently completed two years of Brussels sprouts variety trials which included the effect of timing topping on yield and button size uniformity.
The step of removing the active growing point at the top of the plant stimulates axillary bud growth and helps the plant mature its buttons within a shorter time period. Topping also helps reduce crop lodging in late fall. Sales “on the stalk” might reduce total yield (a single destructive harvest), but has the greater advantage of reducing harvest labor costs.
While in NJ we recommend growers start with Jade Cross E F-1 hybrid as a reliable early maturing standard variety, Sideman and Saunders’ results show the yield variability is such that trialing under your own farm’s conditions is worthwhile. Overall, the newer hybrid varieties taste much sweeter than open-pollinated heirloom varieties.
Brussels sprouts sold “on the stalk” are an attractive and unusual late season direct market item for the farm stand. They are rugged, holding in the field well past first frosts (in fact, improving in flavor with exposure to light frosts) and, forgiving in postharvest handling for a longer shelf-life.