We talk to Chris Logan from West Garleton in East Lothian about Christmas on the farm, and the perils of growing everyone’s favourite festive vegetable, the humble sprout.

There is a flurry of activity at the North Pole just now, as the gentleman in red and his elves work around the clock to ensure all the toys and games are prepared and delivered in time for Christmas.

And facing a similar logistic nightmare, a bit closer to home in East Lothian is farmer Chris Logan, who at his family-run farm, will pick, process and pack 5000 tonnes of Brussels sprouts this year and ensure they get to the supermarket shelves in time for our festive meals.

In the quiet before the storm, we grabbed our chance to chat to him about the perils of growing tiny xmas cabbages, with round the clock, harvesting starting mid December.

He is the third generation of his family to farm at West Garleton, near Dunbar, however, credit must go to his green-fingered father, Billy. He started the vegetable growing business initially nurturing turnips, cabbage and beetroot in his back garden as a teenager 45 years ago.

Brussels sprouts in a field

Fields of Brussels sprouts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Chris explains that it is now a completely different scale of operation, with 3000 acres of land being farmed, around East Lothian and the Borders. “It began in the back garden of the farm, and it basically grew from there, now it is a bit bigger,” he said.

Chris now lives on the farm with his wife Sarah, and their three boys, Cole (11), Gray (9), and Will (6) and he said, “I’m hoping, my kids will be the fourth generation of farmers.”

The main crops are, Dutch white cabbage, red cabbage and Brussels sprouts, these are all grown in 1150 acres and packed on-site before being delivered to Scottish and English supermarket depots, “Yup, we grow for them all, it spreads the risk,” he said.

They also grow 800 acres of potatoes and 100 acres of parsnips, Chris explains: “we don’t pack them here, we deliver them in bulk”

They also grow barley and do some additional farm contracting.

Are you a fan?

Chris said: “in small quantities. I should really say I love them and to be fair I do like Brussels sprouts, but I dinnae like bowlfuls of them right enough.”

A handful of brussels sprouts

“I do like Brussels sprouts, but I dinnae like bowlfuls of them right enough.”

Due to Covid restrictions this year, festive celebrations on the farm will be very different.

Normally Christmas is quite a family affair. Chris said: “I’ve got three older sisters and we are all close. One is a director, she works here full time,  the other one lives next door to me and although the other one lives in Edinburgh she also works part-time for me.”

The big day would normally see dinner for all the extended family,  Chris said, “somehow it all comes together between Sarah and my sisters, and they basically divide the jobs up between them.

“There is usually beef and possibly a chicken, with lots of fresh vegetables from the farm. The boys like dad’s potatoes, although they are not that keen on sprouts!” he added.

Chris said “there are zero plans for Christmas day, we will see what happens. In my eyes, it is going to be just ourselves this year; myself, Sarah and three boys.

“The boys are looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus, their present list includes a quad bike, a new iPhone, mountain bike and remote-controlled cars.”

The boys like to help their father out on the farm when they can, but things have changed a lot and he said, “as soon as I was home from school I was out with my dad or the workers. ”

Chris tells us about his happy childhood, “I got really excited about getting my first proper toolkit one year.

“I don’t know how old I was at the time maybe 13, l was always going into farming, definitely from a young age,  and I’ll be very surprised if Cole my eldest doesn’t, he is desperate on the farming job, I’m not sure about the other two.”

Chris explains why, “we are busy at this time of year, right up until the 24th, the site is open 24 hours a day, harvesting and packing in the packhouse.

“There is no time for a day off, and we are all quite glad to get to lunchtime on the Christmas Eve, then we can put our feet up a wee bit.”

Three boys holding Brussels sprouts Will, Cole and Gray Logan the next farming generation

L-R: Will, Cole and Gray Logan the next farming generation. Picture Lisa Ferguson

Growing sprouts takes a lot of careful planning, “we need to pick the right land and the right variety. While the current crop is still in the ground, we have already started well and truly planning for next year.”

Weather is another important factor, “you might have sales lined up, but if the weather goes against you, you are snookered,” he said.

To reduce the chance of frost damage even further, they stagger planting times and grow sprouts at different sites across East Lothian that are even less likely to get frosts.

Rain and pests can cause issues, which Chris explains: “last summer was fairly dry, you can have months of drought, where you are constantly trying to get water onto the crop to make it thrive and the yield where it needs to be to make ends meet, but then it can change and we can be pumping water out of fields because it has flooded.”

In the winter months, you can have frost and snow, but he said, “it can also turn very wet, suddenly you have to harvest in rain.”

Then he explains the whole process; buy the seed before it is sent to the nursery to be germinated before being returned to the farm by mid-April to end of May.

He said: “You have to care for them from the minute they go in the ground, once it gets here it is our job to make it survive and thrive.”

Cascade of Christmas Sprouts.

Cascade of Christmas Sprouts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The tiny plugs are planted by a high tech vegetable planting machine which uses RTK- or real-time kinematic based GPS guidance for pinpoint accuracy, each row of seedlings are grown 60 cm apart with 40 to 50 cm between each plant, and the same machine is used for sprouts as well as the cabbages.”

Chris also ensures the crops are planted in rotation to prevent disease such as clubroot. He said, “you can sell quality all day long as soon as there is something wrong with it it is hard to shift.

“I lose sleep over sprouts, but then again I lose sleep over a lot of things on a farm.  I would say the biggest challenges we face are weather and labour.”

Brexit

One of the major hurdles being faced by Scottish fruit and vegetable farmers is labour and with Brexit on the horizon in the new year, there is a lot of uncertainty.

Chris said:”It is a worry, but it is a worry that nobody seems to have any of the answers to and yes there will be challenges, but every day is a challenge. We might come out of it no bad but it might be a disaster. We just need to cross our fingers.”

Hi tech harvesting machine

Harvest time

The company employs on average about 150 workers, including Europeans, “many lads have been here for years, and have started their family here and their kids go to school and they treat here as home now, not their own countries, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria.”

“All cabbage is still cut by hand, we have a lot of full-time staff but we also use a lot of labour providers who have been on at us all summer saying-‘look we need to give these people work, we need to keep them employed to keep them here till the other side of Brexit.’ So if we wait till next year, it is simple we are just not going to get them,” he said.

Christmas future

In the packing sheds this year at West Garleton they have introduced some new technology, a new sprout colour sorting machine, which can instantly tell which sprouts have been naughty and which are nice.

On the horizon, there are further improvements to streamline the whole process, new machinery – propelled sprout harvesters, which will further reduce the need for workers.

Chris said, “not completely unmanned because the technology is not quite there yet.” They currently have four harvesting machines which are manned by either two or four people and Chris expects that to be further reduced in the not too distant future.

During the harvest, they start picking sprouts at 3 am every morning, except on Sundays, the first load is brought in from the fields at 5 am to for the packhouse starting work at 6 am, the produce will be cleaned, sorted and packed ready to go out to the shops the very next day. Chris explains the reason, “sprouts won’t keep.”

They also harvest sprouts on stalks here, he said,  “it can cause a bit of a hassle, it definitely keeps them fresher but it is a lot more labour intensive for the produce you get.

“It is a faff trying to get a stalk into a bag and it has to be a certain length, with so many sprouts on it.” But he is happy to grow anything if there is demand from the supermarkets.

Santa Claus and the reindeer will hopefully stop at the farm, on their way back to the North Pole and with any luck there should still be a few Brussels sprouts left in the fields for Rudolph but Chris tells us “there will be mince pies and a couple of carrots and some reindeer dust left out for them and we normally have a beer for Santa, he is partial to a Peroni.”

However, this hard-working Brussels Sprout growing family will all be tucked up in bed having a well-earned rest.

A field of Christmas brassicas, tiny cabbages or the humble brussels sprout

 

West Garleton,
Haddington
East Lothian
EH41 3SJ

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About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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