Drive the back roads of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the summer and you’ll be dazzled by the beauty of fields covered with mustard in bloom. What sunflowers were to Vincent van Gogh in the south of France, the yellow flower of mustard is to us Prairie folk. But while the French may celebrate Van Gogh’s sunflowers, most Albertans don’t have a clue about the beauty – and bounty – of the mustard that grows in their own backyard.

They’re not alone, either. Few people realize that Canada is a mustard superpower, one that accounts for about 75 to 80 per cent of total global exports of the seed. Likewise, most people are ignorant of the fact that Alberta is responsible for a significant portion of those exports, second only to Saskatchewan. Given that over 700 million pounds of mustard are consumed worldwide each year, the economic value of this resource is considerable. The source of our ignorance may lie in the fact that, like so many other natural resources – oil, lumber and potash, to name just a few – mustard is generally shipped out of the country to be refined, with the value added and extracted elsewhere before being resold to Albertans and Canadians alike. Why is this?

Why Alberta Is a Mustard Superpower

Mustard is one of the world’s oldest known condiments. Its name comes from the Latin mustum ardens, which means “burning must” and refers to the piquant flavour produced by the heat of crushed mustard seeds when they’re mixed with the juice of unfermented wine grapes. Long known for its medicinal qualities as much as its culinary applications, mustard paste was used for general muscular relief and to help cure toothaches, stimulate appetite and digestion, clear sinuses and increase blood circulation. Traditional folklore even suggests that sprinkling mustard powder in your socks before heading out into Alberta’s cold winter will help prevent frostbite.

Its agricultural bona fides are nearly as impressive. Mustard is a wonderfully versatile crop and a good friend to the farmer, given that it interrupts pest cycles and, when grown as a crop cover, replenishes the nutrients in depleted soil. Typically, there are three market classes of mustard: yellow, brown and oriental. On average, mustard plants produce up to 1,000 pounds of seeds per acre, and all parts of the mustard plant are edible, including the leaves, seeds and flowers.

Sakai Spice Corporation knows all about the virtues of this underappreciated crop. Located in Lethbridge in the heart of southern Alberta’s mustard-growing country, it specializes in the production of mustard powder and wasabi powder. Since 1995, the Japanese-owned facility has been in the business of mustard (the company itself got into it in 1943), which involves grinding the seeds into flour and then shipping the powder to its head office in Japan, where the wet mustard operations then begin. According to sales manager Chris Sutherland, “Forty to 50 per cent of all sales are to Japan; South Korea accounts for an additional 20 to 30 per cent, and various other global customers make up the rest.”

Sakai Spice purchases the bulk of its mustard seed from Viterra Inc. (formerly Agricore), a Canadian agri-business powerhouse based in Regina. Viterra, in turn, purchases vast quantities of the crop from western Canadian sources, with the majority coming from farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Viterra then cleans the seed to customer standards. By purchasing from Viterra, Sakai Spice is guaranteed a high-quality product without having to worry about the potential supply interruptions attendant to dealing with individual farmers, who are more vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather.

While Canada is the world’s largest producer of mustard seed, it isn’t anywhere near the top when it comes to manufacturing it. It’s a familiar story for Albertans, who’ve heard the gospel of value-added being preached by both politicians and economists for years. But the > story’s familiarity doesn’t make it any less perplexing. Why aren’t there more value-added strategies being undertaken here in Alberta? Why, for instance, isn’t shelf-ready mustard produced here in bulk?

Blair Roth, the director of beans and special crops at Viterra, says that it comes down to simple economics. “In terms of wet-milled mustard,” Roth says, “we don’t have a population base here to be a world-scale processed-mustard supplier. It’s cheaper to send cleaned mustard powder closer to a population base where they can then put it in to shelf-ready form and thereby reduce freight costs.” Ready-made mustard has a large water content which, added to the weight of packaging, can make shipping costs an issue. Sending cleaned mustard powder closer to a population base that consumes large quantities helps to reduce costs.

The eastern seaboard of the United States, for example, purchases a vast quantity of yellow mustard powder. To understand the value of this market, consider these startling figures: in just one year at New York’s Yankee Stadium, more than 1,600 gallons plus two million individual packets of mustard are consumed. Just imagine the freight costs of shipping all that prepared mustard to the Big Apple rather than simply sending the powder.

Making Mustard, Alberta-Style

While there aren’t many domestic mustard-making operations in Alberta, those that do exist are doing it right. In 1995, Calgary-based Karen Davis and Desmond Johnston made their first batch of mustard and gave jars to friends and family as Christmas presents. Their gift idea was a hit, and it planted the seed of an idea that eventually germinated in the form of Brassica Mustard. The husband-and-wife team started making mustard for public consumption in 2001, and purchased a warehouse in Airdrie to accommodate their growing business two years ago. Their motto, “Prairie Grown, Prairie Made,” highlights their strict reliance on locally sourced ingredients. Those ingredients are used to make four flavours of gourmet mustard: dill, cranberry honey, roasted garlic and horseradish.

It wasn’t always easy to get those local ingredients. “When Desmond first phoned Viterra in Warner to purchase mustard seeds, he was informed that they only sold by the trainload,” Davis says. “But he persisted and was able to get them to work out a sack price, and now we buy in 100-pound sacks.” Brassica Mustard sells to local stores and currently supplies anywhere from 30 to 50 restaurants with its product. For its upcoming 10-year anniversary, the company is preparing to announce a fifth as-yet-undisclosed flavour to its line.

Patricia Smith, the so-called “mustard lady” whose Country Kitchen booth is a regular fixture at Edmonton’s Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, has been keeping her customers stocked with the yellow stuff for even longer. When she first became a vendor at the market back in the mid-1990s selling cookbooks, she came across a man from Ontario who sold a maple syrup-flavoured mustard that used a secret family recipe. “He only sold that single mustard,” she says. “And I thought, ‘He should expand on that.’” When he moved back east, she decided to do what he hadn’t done and began with three basic mustards: hot, sweet and honey. Over time, her line of offerings has expanded to 50 different kinds of mustard, often based on suggestions made by her customers. The most popular kinds are hot (perhaps due to our cold climate), habanero honey, horseradish and jalapeno mustard, but she also sells a fair amount of specialty flavours, including tequila lime, merlot chocolate, orange espresso and blackberry honey.

Humble Beginnings: Mustard seed doesn’t look quite as promising in its planted form, but it provides the soil it grows in with a few tasty treats of its own

Like the folks at Brassica Mustard, Smith purchases local ingredients, often from her fellow vendors at the market. Because mustard has such a long shelf life, she makes her mustards one batch at a time, a process that yields roughly a 12 pack of 250-millilitre jars. Working out of her home kitchen, she prefers to cook no more than four batches in a day, but she’s been known at times to cook more than twice that amount.

Mustard may be one of the world’s most versatile condiments, but there are those who think it could become even more valuable as a commodity. To that end, a joint initiative between the Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission, the Canadian Mustard Association and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada called Mustard 21 was incorporated as a non-profit in May 2009. It was charged with developing a strategic plan for the Canadian mustard industry, one that is built around encouraging mustard growers to increase domestic processing and extraction and to develop new mustard-based products beyond the condiment market. In July 2010, the initiative received a $4-million boost in additional funding from the federal government.

According to its vision statement, Mustard 21 hopes to develop mustard into a “value-added sustainable industry of half a billion dollars by 2021 in Canada.” And while the initiative is not led by Alberta, it will benefit Albertan producers as well. Gordon Hutton of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, who works in the department’s crop business development branch, says that “Mustard 21 is for all mustard producers in Western Canada.”

Mustard as Biofuel

Viterra’s Blair Roth believes that there are possibilities associated with non-conventional applications of mustard seeds. “There’s certainly more and more value-added strategies being undertaken,” Roth says. “Planting mustard as a biofumigant, for instance, to combat nematodes [tiny, wormlike crop pests] and extracting oil out of mustard as a possible biofuel are two that spring to mind.” Biofuel is a growing industry in Alberta and refers to fuel derived from renewable biological resources. It has been associated traditionally with animal fats as well as virgin and recycled vegetable oils from soybeans, canola, corn, sunflowers and other seed crops.

But Tanya McDonald thinks that mustard seeds could also be a good fit. She’s a bioenergy research scientist at the Olds College School of Innovation who has been involved with biodiesel research on a pilot scale since 2007. “We’re regularly using mustard oil for all of our production,” she says. “We’ve been purchasing crude mustard oil from Mustard Capital Inc. (MCI) in Saskatchewan and producing 50,000 litres of very good-quality biodiesel fuel each year. We blend it with petroleum diesel at different rates and supply it to our partners in research.”

As part of a project that seeks to encourage community awareness and involvement, Olds College developed a community fuel partnership program. Eight school buses from Chinook’s Edge School Division, all of Olds College’s diesel fleet and three garbage trucks from the Mountain View Regional Waste Commission now run on a biodiesel blend that is produced on-site. McDonald talks with evident enthusiasm about the new biodiesel plant operated by Kyoto Fuels Corporation that is set to open in June of this year just outside of Lethbridge. “They’ll be a very large commercial plant,” McDonald says, “likely the largest commercial producer in Canada.”

The manufacturing facility will produce 66 million litres of biodiesel fuel per year and, its parent company hopes, change the way we think about fuel in the process. Kelsey Prenevost, the president and CEO of Kyoto Fuels, says that mustard oil could play a part in the production of biodiesel. “We designed our biodiesel plant to accept a variety of feedstocks, including mustard,” he says.

Although Kyoto Fuels is actively seeking oil sources, the majority of the biodiesel will be made from animal fats. “Alberta has a large number of slaughter facilities,” Prenevost says, “and since animal fat can no longer be reintroduced into animal feed, that fat is being shipped to China. So we have the added benefit of having a viable oil source available to us in our own backyard, so to speak.” If a reliable source of mustard oil were available, would Kyoto Fuels be interested in purchasing it? “Absolutely,” Prenevost says.

Over the past few years, the Alberta government has invested quite heavily in biofuels. As of April 1 this year, it requires that all diesel fuel sold in the province contain an average of two per cent biodiesel content. In other words, the mustard seed – in addition to providing the foundation for one of the world’s greatest condiments and helping farmers interrupt the pest cycles that so often plagues their operations – might also help to reduce air pollution and limit our dependence on fossil fuels. Not even Van Gogh’s vaunted sunflowers can do all of that.