Mustard seed growers form a local collective

One of Britain’s best brands is benefiting from a local group of farmers who have formed a co-operative.

One of Britain’s best brands is benefiting from a local group of farmers who have formed a co-operative.

An annual contract with Colman’s Mustard has prompted a group of farmers to form a co-operative and develop an efficient supply chain in East Anglia.

The success of the English Mustard Growers Co-operative has ensured that top UK brand Colman’s can call its mustard ‘English’ and that English mustard growers can develop together. The mustard seed crop is particularly important in the fens of East Anglia, where it is a traditional part of the area’s rotational systems, and where the free-draining soils suit it well.

Many of the families in the EMG co-op have been growing it for five or six generations. Meanwhile Colman’s, with its factory in nearby Norwich, is preparing to celebrate its bicentenary in 2014.

EMG Chairman Michael Sly, whose family has been growing mustard for 110 years, says Unilever has been working to rebuild relations with farmers. “We have a really positive relationship with them,” he says. “Unilever is trying to engage with its growers on a small scale.”

Mr Sly was among the farmers who worked with Unilever and business consultancy EFFP to develop a collaborative supply chain for Colman’s. “Eleven individual growers were left,” he says. “We’d had an appalling harvest. It looked like the crop was going to die, which had happened with other sectors. We set up the growers’ co-operative to help improve husbandry and marketing. It’s that mutuality. It’s us sharing information and bringing us as growers and the group forward together.”

The co-op was the preferred option for Unilever too. It wanted to maintain its strong ‘English’ brand and its local growing base, and was looking for ways to support and encourage farmers. EFFP helped the growers develop a business plan aimed at re-establishing mustard seed as an important and profitable crop in the East of England. Elsoms Seeds of Spalding came on board, and quickly increased productivity by pelleting the seeds into uniform sizes.

In its first year, the co-op invested in mobile crop drying and cleaning equipment, to ensure mustard production was as efficient as possible. Mr Sly says the farmers are benefiting from improved long-term profitability and reduced risks, and are able to continue to grow an important break crop on a commercial basis.

“By handling administration, the co-operative simplifies contract management for Unilever and for farmers,” he says. “When the crop is delivered to the factory in Norwich we do the invoicing. It means Unilever don’t have to deal with 17 growers individually.

“The levy we charge pays for support from Elsoms Seeds and Farmacy, who supply our agronomy support. They’re our crop doctor, as it were.” The co-op gets a better rate and better service from its consultants, and it can share best practice as a matter of course. “It’s all about sharing and helping each other,” says Mr Sly. “Every June or July one of the growers hosts a barbecue, for representatives from Colman’s, Elsoms and Farmacy as well as the members. We have a walk round the farm and something to eat and drink. It’s a chance to socialise as well as talk business.”

Mr Sly says he is proud to be part of the co-operative that saved English mustard. “We have new members growing for the first time this year,” he says, “but we’re looking for more. We still need to increase acreage.”

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