Forage 2021: Northern farmers grow mustard on purpose
For most of us, mustard is either the sunny, tangy condiment we put on hot dogs, or the weeds we try to keep out of our fields. Some farmers, though, look forward to seeing mustard crop up in their fields. Because they planted it there.
Morgan Oie is the president of Hanrahan Farms, near Scobey, Montana, which is on the northeastern end of the state. On the farm he works with his father-in-law, Dave Hanrahan, they grow small grains–durum, canola, peas, lentils, flax and mustard. They use a rotation to help with weed control, as they’ve been completely no-till for more than 20 years.
Oie said they choose the crops to plant each year based on the weed situation and the market. Some of their crops, like mustard, peas and lentils, are technically broadleaves, which would be killed by most herbicides. They can spray grasses in their broadleaf crops, but if thistle gets to be a problem, they have to change their crop to something like flax, durum or canola, which allows them to use a stronger chemical that will take care of the Canada and Russian thistle.
When it comes to fertilizer, adding peas and lentils to the rotation gives a break on nitrogen application, as those fix the nitrogen in the soil naturally.
Canola and mustard have big taproots, so they break up hardpan and loosen the soil down to 6 or 8 inches.
So their choice of crop depends on price forecasts and what the field needs.
Hanrahan Farms has been growing mustard for five years. Each year they sign a contract with the Olds Products Company, which makes Koops mustard, found in grocery stores across the United States. Oie said they buy seed directly from Olds, and the company buys the crop back, so they deal with only one person for the whole growing cycle. According to the Olds website, they’re a family-owned company that has been working directly with farmers for more than 100 years.
Herman Kandel, an agronomist with North Dakota State University Extension, said the contract is one reason not many farmers in North Dakota are growing mustard right now. “You can’t just drive to any elevator and sell the mustard,” he said. “You must have a contract available.”
The grower tells the company how many acres they’re planning to seed, and the company calculates how much mustard seed they’ll need, and arrives at a yield per acre they’ll pay a set price for. Oie said this year they’re paying $.36 a pound, up to 800 pounds per acre. If the yield is over that, Oie said they can shop around to sell it somewhere else, but usually the company will buy all of it at that price.
The contract guarantees the price before planting, which makes it easier to figure a break-even cost. If hail or drought takes out the crop before harvest, there’s no penalty, and they start over the next year.
The growing season is fairly short, so harvest usually rolls around in late August or September. “It usually finishes ripening earlier than canola, and right ahead of the durum, so it fits in pretty nicely that way,” Oie said. Harvest doesn’t require any special equipment, just a combine with the same header they use on wheat and everything else.
Oie said the company assumes all cost after the seed is harvested. They pick it up, clean it and haul it.
Olds contracts with farmers in different areas of the country, hoping that if one area gets droughted or hailed out, another area will have a sufficient crop to meet their needs.
One drawback with the crop is that not as much work has been done genetically on mustard as on its relative, canola, so it’s riskier and harder to grow. “Canola’s come so far in even the last 10 years as far as being shatterproof and Roundup ready,” Oie said. “Mustard isn’t like that. The pods are very delicate. You can watch deer run across the field and the pods just shatter behind them, when it’s ripe.” Mustard hasn’t been genetically modified at all, and Oie suspects they may want to keep it that way, for non-GMO and organic markets.
While the canola yield can be two to three times the yield of mustard, Oie said pound for pound, mustard is more profitable.
“Like any crop, the price has to compete with other crops,” Kandel said. “But also the risk of growing a crop you’re not familiar with is substantial. So farmers shy away from growing a new crop if there isn’t an incentive. The soybean price is very high, and it’s very easy to grow soybeans. From a risk management standpoint, farmers go with crops they’re more familiar with. If the price of mustard is really high compared with other crops, we see an increase in interest.”
When the pencil pushing is done, Oie said even in bad years, like the drought of 2017, they break even, or maybe lose a little, but the good years make it worthwhile. “It’s a good crop. We enjoy raising it.” But he doesn’t recommend eating the spicy crop straight out of the field.
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