Company Pours On Mustard

In the Tank or on a Sandwich, Mustard as Miracle Crop

Apr 19, 2013

By Mark Noack
Half Moon Bay Review

Anyone driving along Highway 1 in the spring is certain to notice a sea of yellow throughout the farm fields. That golden color comes from acres of wild mustard, a plant that grows like a weed and has been used by generations of growers to replenish the soil.

Today, the ubiquitous mustard is gaining the reputation as a kind of miracle crop. Local farmers are beginning to glimpse an expanding panorama of uses for wild mustard, such as a biofuel source, and an all-in-one fertilizer and pesticide.

A team of South Coast and Santa Cruz County farmers has launched Farm Fuel, a Watsonville startup devoted to maximizing the uses for mustard. Founders attest that their idea finally ripened after five years of research and development. The company hopes to turn its first profit this year.

“It’s a cheap, easy-to-grow crop. You just put it in the land and it grows like a weed,” explained Ellen Farmer, Farm Fuel spokeswoman. “Mustard had the reputation of being a negative. What this company did was find what’s positive about it.”

The company’s origin is somewhat serendipitous. Around 2007, Pescadero farmer Larry Jacobs dreamed of growing his own fuel, and he decided one answer might be pickleweed. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher approached Jacobs and described how pickleweed seed is 30 percent oil and usable as biodiesel. Even better, the plant can live off saltwater, meaning that a desolate coastal area, generally unsuitable for most agriculture, would be its ideal environment.

Jacobs began the work to jumpstart a facility on the Baja California coast, but the startup became bogged down in logistical challenges. The salty environment was perfect for growing the crop but also rusted machinery, and Jacobs couldn’t figure out a good way to harvest the plants efficiently.

As he was making the long drive home from Mexico, Jacobs glanced out his car window at the rolling fields of mustard and devised another idea.

Mustard grows all over California, both as a wild plant and as a cover crop for farms. No one is entirely sure how mustard first came to the United States. One apocryphal story holds that Spanish missionaries scattered mustard seeds throughout the West Coast to create a bright yellow path between their settlements.

The plant’s seeds also have a high amount of oil, and, as Jacobs soon learned, researchers at the University of Idaho had been breeding the plant to drive its oil content even higher. Jacobs founded Farm Fuel with Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farms and Ken Kimes of New Natives in Aptos.

The team recruited other South Coast farmers to save their mustard crops. For the first time in recent memory, farmers began harvesting the mustard seeds. Farm Fuel dusted off an old combine that was mothballed in La Honda and hadn’t seen much action since local farmers were growing flax seed during World War II.

As a fuel source, the mustard oil worked perfectly. One acre of land could grow about 60 gallons of usable biodiesel. But as a business, the idea still had a few kinks.

Thirty percent of mustard seed is oil, but producing that fuel was barely worth the cost of harvesting, transporting and pressing the seeds.

“You can’t make a business out of growing mustard just for the oil,” Jacobs said. “We began looking for another revenue source.”

After crushing and extracting the oil from the seeds, what’s left is a fine flaky meal that tastes much like wasabi. The substance is rich in nutrients crucial for farming, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Farm Fuel began marketing its own “Pescadero Gold” fertilizer made from mustard meal. Jacobs describes it as an astonishingly good fertilizer with some other surprising properties.

Mustard has a number of natural defenses built up as a shield from insects, parasites and other plants. Part of the heat of the mustard taste is due to its glucosinolates, which help defend against pathogens. Researchers at the University of Idaho had been working for years to isolate and enhance those properties.

Jacobs describes his mustard soil additives as a nontoxic replacement for chemical pesticides and fumigants. He envisions being able to develop the tools for a completely self-sustaining farm system.

“We’re taking this chest of weapons, developed in an arms race of insects versus plants, and teasing out these power rules in the system that we can use for growing food,” he said.

For now, the mustard meal is being marketed as a fertilizer, but Farm Fuel is meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency this week to get the mustard meal certified as a pesticide.

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