On the Farm: Family buys from a local grain terminal and processes it in a commercial kitchen in a local community hall
There have been times when acres of blooming mustard decorated the fields at Luco Farms near Lethbridge.
Those acres formed the basis of a business in prepared mustards that is now operated by the father and son team of Robert and Ben Luco.
The two have prairie roots, and “prairie” is in the name of all six mustard varieties they produce.
Robert’s grandfather homesteaded in southern Alberta in the early 1900s and his father bought the current property in 1939.
“My father was a pedigreed seed grower … and he received about a four or five pound allocation of Lethbridge 22A oriental mustard seed from the Lethbridge research station,” said Robert.
As a teenager, he worked with his father to multiply the seed.
“We would plant the seed into plots with rogueing lanes so that you could go through and pick out the off types. And then he propagated that into enough seed to start selling to other seed producers and seed growers.”
When Robert and his wife, Wende, farmed the land, they started thinking about ways to vertically integrate the operation and add value to their crops.
“We talked about that for probably 25 or 30 years and finally Ben and I started messing around with mustard seed and started grinding it, and that’s kind of where we started,” said Robert.
The product line of six involves three types of mustards and various blends. Yellow, brown and oriental mustard have their place in the products. Though the Lucos have grown oriental mustard on their 1,000-acre property in the recent past, they now buy it from Viterra’s Warner, Alta., grain elevator in 50 lb. bags that are easy for them to manage. Viterra contracts with area farmers to grow the three types of mustard needed.
The grain company can also provide valuable non-GMO certification and traceability, said Robert.
The Lucos established a commercial kitchen in a nearby community hall, which holds all the needed equipment for grinding, processing and bottling their products.
When they initially began the business in 2011, Robert and Ben experimented with various additives to the base; things like cranberry and dill. Local chefs who tested the results dissuaded them.
“They kept wagging their fingers at Ben and I and saying, ‘stop putting stuff in the mustard. We want pure mustard so that if we want to use it in a sauce, we’re not hamstrung…. If we want to use it in a sauce we want a pure product and we will doctor it up with herbs or spices or whatever on our own.’ ”
They took that advice and the results have been successful, said Robert.
They sell through the Lethbridge farmers market and various boutique grocery stores and speciality shops in southern Alberta, as well as online.
Robert estimates they sell 150 to 200 litres of mustard a week but expansion is in the cards.
“We have an opportunity to get into a couple of grocery chains so we’re looking at that right now,” he said.
Ben describes himself as “the grind master and soak master” of the operation. He gets the mustards together, strains and washes them and puts them to soak in a vinegar solution.
“It takes about a day for it to soak and then I put it in the grinder and grind away and that’s where it all comes together to form this wonderful recipe of mustards.”
Robert takes over the bottling and pressurizing, followed by labelling, and both of them make sales calls to market their wares.
“It keeps me very busy. It’s an interesting project,” said Ben about the appeal of the mustard business.
“It keeps me on my toes all the time, thinking of new ways to put the creations together. And it’s good financially. It keeps me in contact with people as well, socially. I’m a social person and I like to meet people and be with people and this business allows me to do so.”
Wende also has a role in the business, added Robert.
“My wife is kind of the silent business partner. She does the books and the invoices and all that kind of stuff. Like most farm families, quite often it’s the wives who are the financial wizards behind the work.”
Robert said the farmers market has been an ideal way to meet potential customers and inform the public about mustard, including the fact that Alberta and Saskatchewan produce about 95 percent of the world’s mustard seed. Wasabi and most French and European mustards are made from prairie mustard seed.
After tasting Luco Farms product, many customers say they can’t eat “that yellow stuff” anymore, said Ben.
Prairie Flower is made with yellow mustard; Prairie Sun is a blend of yellow and brown mustard; Prairie Lightning is a blend of yellow, brown and oriental; Prairie Fire is pure oriental “that can clean your sinuses;” Prairie Sweet and Hot uses all three types plus sugar; and Prairie Spirit is a finely ground blend of yellow and oriental.
Robert said Lethbridge has proven to be a good place to run an agriculturally based venture and Luco Farms has benefitted from the support of Lethbridge College and from other businesses.
“It’s amazing how many innovative businesses there are in southern Alberta that are food processing based, and there’s becoming more of them.”