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Farm focus: Hot prospects for English mustard growers

English heritage runs deep at Colman’s and the mustard growers who supply it. Jez Fredenburgh reports.

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Two hundred years of milling, mixing and bottling, has made Colman’s mustard one of Britain’s best loved food brands. Underpinning its success is a small team of growers in the fens of East Anglia, many of whose families have been growing the fiery crop for five or six generations.


Now, Colman’s parent company Unilever and the English Mustard Growers (EMG) cooperative, which supplies its English seed, are on the look-out for more UK growers.


Bob Walpole, Unilever UK’s dry foods and crops manager says: “It’s English mustard, so we ought to be trying to grow and buy as much English seed as we can. Demand for Colman’s mustard has been maintained and we are milling as hard as we can.”


Most mustard factories crush seeds and vinegar together, but Colman’s is one of just a handful in the world that rolls its seeds until only a fine powder remains. “What we’re looking for is pure mustard,” says Mr Walpole.


Colman’s is a blend of brown and white mustard seed, of which 50-60 per cent of the brown seed is sourced from EMG and the rest from Canada. However, all the white seed is home-grown. Both varieties - Gedney (white) and Sutton (brown)- were developed by Colman’s in the 1990s and take their names from local parishes.


“There is real heritage and tradition behind our mustard,” says EMG’s chairman Michael Sly, who farms 87 hectares (215 acres) of brown mustard near Peterborough. “My family have been farming mustard for 110 years, but several of our growers have been farming it for over 120 years. Some started growing mustard post-war, and others have begun just recently.


“We’re looking for new growers as we’d like to ultimately supply more of Colman’s mustard seed,” says Mr Sly. “We have a very good relationship with Unilever and get individual support from them.”


As the seed usually fetching over £600/tonne, mustard can be an attractive alternative to oilseed rape and often has a high yield potential on virgin land, says Mr Sly.


With stocks down after one of EMG’s largest growers sadly passed away, coupled with poor weather for the last two years and new generations moving out of mustard, there is a need to replace acreage says Mr Walpole. “We are also looking for more growers to expand on a permanent basis,” he says.


While EMG’s average yield is between 1.3-1.7 tonnes/ha (0.5-0.7t/acre), it is aiming to return to 1995 yields of 2.5 tonnes/ha (1t/acre).


The group is thriving now

The group is thriving now, but its growers are gradually building their heritage back up after a decade of declining yields post 1996.


A disastrous crop in 2007, which produced 0.5 tonne/ha (0.2t/acre) in the worst cases, was the final straw which prompted the establishment of EMG.


“English mustard was at the point where it nearly died,” says Mr Sly, “so eleven of us got together with Unilever and business consultants EFFP. We wanted to keep one of Unilever’s unique brands, and decided to give it a go but do it a different way - Unilever was very supportive,” he says.


Determined to keep English seed in Colman’s mustard, EMG and Unilever enlisted plant breeder Tony Guthrie from Elsoms Seeds. Using Colman’s records Mr Guthrie compared seeds from 1995-2006 and discovered the factory’s sieving process was rejecting smaller seeded family members for the following season’s sowing. This imbalance affected the ability of white mustard plants to pollinate each other. To address this, Elsoms pelleted the small seeds into uniform sizes - and helped save English mustard.


Since then, EMG has grown from eleven to seventeen growers across Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk, farming 600ha (1,483 acres) of white and brown mustard, and producing over 1,200 tonnes annually, exclusively for Unilever.


Unilever pays more than £600/tonne for the seed, plus a further fee to cover haulage and running costs of the group, which is taken as a levy from each grower. This enables the group to buy in professional seed and agronomy support and invest in a mobile drier and seed cleaner.


“All the growers coming together under EMG to help each other and share knowledge has been the biggest benefit we’ve seen in changing practices of the last few years,” says Mr Walpole.  


The nation’s best loved mustard and its English growers are now looking forward to the next 200 years of mustard heritage.

So what does it take to grow mustard?

Greg Bliss, one of EMG’s growers and directors explains: “Mustard likes free-draining soil suitable for spring cropping, which is one reason why the silts in the Fens are ideal. As a small seed it carries little reserves, so it likes to get up and go.


“At the moment we’re growing overwintered brown mustard, so soil type is not so critical but temperature and moisture are. White mustard enjoys the same conditions as brown, but will do well on more organic peats as it is more competitive early on.”


Both white and brown mustard is spring sown, either with a precision drill in 30-45cm rows or a combi-drill in 10-20cm rows, and harvested towards the end of August. However, much of EMG’s brown mustard is now sown as a winter crop in 30-50cm rows. Mustard is not grown in rotation with oilseed or where charlock is a weed problem, but has traditionally been rotated with potatoes as it is thought to suppress soil-borne pests.


A variety of products are available for mustard, but Mr Bliss uses metazachlor pre-emergence and Galera (clopyralid + picloram) or Fox (bifenox) as post-emergence herbicides, and fungicide Amistar (azoxystrobin) for control of schlerotinia. Mustard is not as susceptible to pests and diseases as oilseed rape, but flea and pollen beetles can pose problems and Mr Bliss says the loss of neonicotinoids will be “a big blow” when controlling flea beetle.


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