A few weeks ago the BBC’s Food Programme (Channel 4) aired its final episode in a series on spices, the episode is titled “Mustard”. You can download it for free through iTunes.
Mustard is a source of national pride in the U.K.; their brand “Coleman’s” is comparable to “French’s” in the United States, though Coleman’s has more of a kick and I like it better.
Well, the U.K.’s mustard crop failed in 2007. Not only that, but yields were halving every year and nobody knew why. Things were so bad that the number of mustard-growers fell to 11. All of these farmers grow mustard for one buyer: Coleman’s.
Back before Coleman’s was bought by Unilever, the manufacturer kept its own stable of in-house scientists who would develop new mustard strands and monitor plant health. All that went out the window– was ‘rationalized’– when Coleman’s was sold. (Why was Coleman’s sold? It’s hard to say, but it’s owner, Reckitt & Colman binged on American assets prior to the sale; American assets including French’s Mustard.)
So the U.K. mustard industry was neglected by it’s new owner, Unilever, and the industry was run into the ground by one of those multinationals that are supposed to make our lives better.
So what did the farmers do? The only thing that little guys can do- they organized a cooperative and hired their own scientist to investigate why yields had fallen.
“Although we are the growers,” said Mr. Michael Sly, head of the mustard-growing cooperative, “we feel that morally we own the brand, although financially we don’t.”
“We thought: We’re not going to just give in without giving it a go and giving it a fight. Bear in mind that most of those growers who are left, their families have been growing it for 100, 140 years,” Mr. Sly continued. “It was too easy to say, ‘Alright, that’s it!’ It was the harder decision to say, ‘Let’s give it a go.’”
The cooperative was able to compare modern seed to seed that was saved from before Unilever’s acquisition of Coleman’s, which isolated the problem. (Unilever was too cheap to even preserve seed samples.)
As it turns out, mustard needs several varieties of mustard-plants to reproduce true to form. Since only the largest seeds were being saved, vital genetic material was lost, ultimately destroying yields. Thanks to the foresight of Coleman’s previous owners and scientists, mustard is still a viable crop in the U.K. Thanks to investment by the little-guy producers, the yield problem was identified and a tech-based solution was found.
Where were the smart, competitive finance-men? Speculating on natural resources?
By the way, mustard is an important crop for rotation farming; that’s the type of farming which diminishes farmers’ dependence on oil-based fertilizers…
Naturally, the BBC downplays the disastrous effect globalization had on mustard production– one of Old England’s cherished traditions– but, at least they mentioned it. I’m sure that mustard is not the only British foodstuff to be adversely affected by globalization; from my own experience in the U.K., the quality of fruits like apples has also nose-dived.
The irony of all this is that it was the mustard-cooperative members’ foresight and commitment which saved a profitable business. The little, committed guys took the risk and made the tough decisions. I wonder if Mr. Sly and his partners earn as much as the brand managers at Unilever…
My solution? Buy from people you know; and if you don’t know anybody, it’s time to broaden your circle.