Saturday, March 17, 2012

Minty fresh farming

Shamrock Shakes. Irish Mist Brownies. Peppermint Hot Chocolate.

Okay, we won't need hot chocolate to keep warm this St. Patrick's Day, but I'm sure the celebrations will include plenty of other minty treats.

Where do those minty flavors come from?

Ultimately, they come from mint grown by farmers like Tom Irrer, who I had the pleasure of meeting at World Ag Expo last month. Tom didn't want me to take his picture. But he said I could share the conversation we had over a lunch of pulled pork sandwiches.

Tom grows a couple thousand acres of peppermint and spearmint on his farm in Michigan. He's one of the few large-scale mint farmers left in Michigan; most of the nation's mint is grown in the Pacific Northwest.

I had lots of questions for Tom, which he happily answered. (He farms just down the road from a dairy, so he didn't have many questions for me about dairy farming.) We spend so much time interacting with farmers in our own industries, we often don't realize that other industries are just as interesting.

Here's a smidgen of what I learned during my lunch with Tom:

♣ Peppermint and spearmint can only be grown in a small part of the United States, due to the mints' specific soil and climate requirements.

♣ When it comes time to harvest fields of peppermint and spearmint, mint farmers swath the field, much like we swath a field of alfalfa. Mint is usually cut twice each year.

♣ The mint plants are left in the field to partially dry down before being being chopped and transported to the farm. At all costs, mint farmers don't let rain fall on their swathed mint. Rain washes the mint oil off the plants.

♣ At the farm, the mint hay is put into a large distiller. The distiller uses steam to extract the oil from the mint. A few mint farmers sell whole-leaf mint, but most mint farmers, like Tom, sell crude mint oil by the drum.

♣ After the oil is extracted, the steamed plants are spread back onto the fields as fertilizer. As a result, mint crops can significantly increase the organic matter in a field's soil.

♣ Like most crops, mint crops need to be rotated. Since Tom grows only mint, he has established rotation partnerships with several land owners in his area. He said the potato farmers, especially, really like the ground trading arrangement because potatoes require soil with high organic matter.

♣ The mint oil from Tom's farm is used primarily to flavor chewing gum, tooth paste and other oral care products.

I'm not a fan of peppermint — so I'll be steering clear of any green-colored St. Patrick's Day treats — but I am addicted to spearmint gum. Now, every time I crunch into a piece and savor that spearminty fresh taste, I think of Tom and his mint fields.

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