Elsoms help save English Mustard

  • Saving a British Institution

    Saving a British Institution

In 2007 Elsoms Director Tony Guthrie was called to a meeting at the Colman’s Mustard factory in Norwich. Colman’s Mustard is a true British institution but this world famous brand had a problem that threatened its iconic ‘English Mustard’ status. Crop yields had been falling for several years and as growers threatened to switch to other crops there was a real risk that “Colman’s” could lose its English status.

Made in Norwich, Colman’s mustard's distinctive fiery kick comes from the way it’s made, with a mixture of white and brown mustard seeds milled into a pure flour. It’s this pure milled flour that is Colman’s famous mustard powder, packaged in its distinctive yellow tin. Sugar, salt, wheat, spice and citric acid is added to make a Colman's jar, tube, sachet of pre-made mustard. The combination of the seeds gives the initial kick and then the high volatile oil levels sustain the taste are in the brown seeds.

The campaign to save Colman’s “English” mustard started after two of the worst harvests on record in 2006/7. Low yields were making the crop unsustainable. Worried about the future of a crop many had been growing for generations the key growers sounded the warning bell to Colman’s and Unilever that the future of the English crop was in real trouble, something needed to done!

Following years of lack of investment in plant breeding, dwindling harvests and poor weather that had driven yields down, the newly formed English Mustard Growers co-operative not only had to convince growers that mustard seed was a crop worth growing, but they needed a seed specialist and agronomist to investigate the declining yields. The co-operative of 11 farmers were determined that Colman's could keep producing truly English mustard, instead of having to turn to overseas suppliers, but they needed help.

The key issue confronting the mustard growers was to understand what had happened to the performance of their once viable crop. In order to find a solution they enlisted the help of the specialists in the plant breeding team at Elsoms Seeds.

So why had mustard proved such a tricky crop to grow in recent years? Unfortunately the Colman’s agronomy department was sadly lost when the parent company Reckitt and Colman sold the brand in 1995 to Unilever. Until that point they had looked after plant breeding and seed development. However Elsoms, Tony Guthrie, was able to use Colman’s records and samples to trace back the Mustard crops of strong harvests in the early nineties and compare the seed stocks from 1995 with 2006 and individual seed characteristics of the seeds being used today.

Tony was able to identify that the mystery behind the mustard yields decline was not climatic or due to disease, but down to a vital error being made when the seed production team “re-cycled” the seed being destined to be sown for the following year’s harvest.

White mustard is "self-incompatible", meaning that an individual plant cannot pollinate itself. Instead it needs to receive pollen from a different family member of white mustard. But the seed team had been sifting out smaller seeded family members of the seed when they planted new crops in order to keep larger, uniform-sized seeds for drilling.

The result of this grading was that the smaller seeded white mustard family members had been gradually phased out. The consequence of this change in the balance of family members was that Mustard plants were not pollinating each other properly, leading to the steady reduction in yield every year which became a cycle of decline as the seed grading process filtered more seeds out every year. iDNA Genetics at John Innes Research were able to confirm Tony’s findings that there had been a significant shift in the population of the families in the white mustard variety solving the mystery of the declining yields.

This was not the end of the problem as a solution had to be found to keeping these smaller seeds and restoring their levels back up to the original levels in the stocks before yields declined. The final problem was how to keep this smaller seed but still get uniform sowing. As well as being specialist plant breeders Elsoms are also experts in seed treatment and coating and so were able to pellet the small seed to create a coated, uniform sized, drillable seed, making sure that the smaller seeded family members were not lost.

Thanks to Elsoms, Tony and our seed treatment team, the English Mustard crop is now back and thriving. The Co-operative has grown from 11 to 14 and yields are making the crop a viable alternative to Rape and wheat.

Elsoms provide exceptional quality seed for growers all over the country and beyond. We work closely with the industry, building productive relationships with farmers, suppliers and partners. Expert and experienced, we have a reputation for innovation, quality and success. This story typifies our commitment to British farming and British business. Colman's has survived on English mustard powder for almost 200 years and we are proud to have helped Colman’s English Mustard plan for the the next 200.

This article was created thanks to many sources including: A Guide to Spice, Part 3: Mustard Which was broadcast on Radio 4 on Sunday 02 September 2012: To listen to the full BBC article visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01m9n2z (check out 8min 16sec to 12 min 50 sec ish.)

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