The Central Coast is famous for its vast berry fields, but strawberries are not the only crop the region is known for.
Ninety percent of the Brussels sprouts grown in the United States are harvested off 2,000 acres of cropland situated in the coastal benchlands from southern San Mateo County to northern Monterey County.
Steve Bontadelli is responsible for more than 10 percent of those vegetables. He farms Brussels sprouts on 250 acres near Sunset and Manresa State Beaches west of Watsonville. He also grows the cabbage-like vegetable in Mexico.
Once a specialty crop that most people turned up their noses at, Brussels sprouts are gaining in popularity thanks to cooking shows, magazines and restaurants. That's meant steady demand and stable prices for farmers like Bontadelli.
"The people who like them, like them," Bontadelli said. "The people who don't, don't."
Last year, Brussels sprouts were a near-$10 million crop in Santa Cruz County, according to . By comparison, about 100 times more Brussels sprouts are grown in Europe, where the crop originated.
Bontadelli, standing on a rise above his fields on a recent sunny day, said 75 percent of Brussels sprout consumption in the U.S. is from the Great Lakes eastward; his biggest sales are in Toronto.
Locally, it's almost harvest season. The fields that took 9 weeks to plant will be picked over the next three months. A crew will go through the rows to hack the bitter outer leaves off the plants. The following day, six workers will use machetes to cut off the stalks, then toss them onto the Harvester where eight more workers feed the stalks through a machine.
"It just get stripped off like a corn cob," Bontadelli said of the Brussels sprouts.
The crew will harvest eight acres in six hours.
Each plant grows about 90 Brussels sprouts. The ones that are too big or too small for grocery stores to sell will be frozen under the Green Giant label.
Bontadelli's recipe for Brussels Sprouts
- Steam the Brussels sprouts lightly.
- Then sauté them in olive oil with garlic, shallots and/or onion. "If I'm feeling frisky, I'll put some pancetta in there," he said.
- Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar and serve.
One tip: don't overcook Brussels spouts. When cooked correctly, the veggie dish should be slightly sweet. It gets bitter when it's overcooked.