Helping farmers share sustainable agricultural practices for Colman’s mustard

The English Mustard Growers (EMG) co-operative uses knowledge and passion to revive English mustard for Colman’s and share best practices through social media.

Keeping it in the family

The same farmer families have grown for Colman’s mustard since 1836. The group of co-operative farmers all live within 50 miles of the factory and the mustard crops are fully traceable back to each individual farm. All farmers are also fully compliant with the Unilever Sustainable Agricultural code and have been since December 2012.

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

200 years of English mustard

Many of the families in the co-op have been growing mustard 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 that Unilever has been working to rebuild relations with farmers. “We have a really positive relationship with them,” he says. “Although Unilever is a multinational, it still feels like we deal with a local family business. And that’s important to us.”

Developing a collaborative supply chain

Michael 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 [in 2012]. It looked like the crop was going to disappear, 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. According to Michael, 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.

Sustainable milestone

“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 doesn’t have to deal with each grower individually.”

This all contributes to the goal of sourcing 100% of materials sustainably by 2020. We started with our top ten agricultural materials and are now considering the next 30 - which account for 20% of our volume. Progress in these areas will mark a significant milestone.

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