Kenneth Smith kneels in a field where he grows mint near Fair Mont Egan school. Smith was raised on the farm just behind him in this photo.
Mint is the smell of money in Flathead Valley
By DAVID REESE
MONTANA LIVING — The hundreds of acres of rolling farm land surrounding Kenneth Smith's house are dormant, and only dry, dead stalks from last year's crop stick out of the ground.
But look closer in the rich, black soil and you can see signs of growth. Tiny green buds of mint plants are just now beginning to sprout up through the dirt. In another month, the fields at Smith's farm will be rolling waves of green mint.
Like those tiny buds beginning to sprout, the mint industry is starting to see signs of growth after a major decline in crop prices over the last six years.
Ten years ago the mint industry exploded — farmers were quick to follow.
"It was pretty lucrative," Smith said.
High crop prices, though, led to an oversaturation of the market, and it collapsed on itself. Mint prices fell from a high of $18 a pound to $7. But now, as a several-year surplus of mint oil is being depleted, min-oil prices are edging back up. They're at about $12 a pound now, which is good news for Flathead Valley mint farmers like Smith.
Smith is a third-generation farmer who has worked the soil on his mother's, father's and grandfather's land for 30 years. His land is between Creston and Kalispell, and surrounds Fair Mont Egan school. In the early 1990s, mint was being grown on about 15,000 acres in the Flathead Valley. That's now down to about 2,000 acres, 130 of which are Smith's.
He runs cows and grows hay, which he says is his best cash crop. But it's the mint that he seems to really like.
Even now, some six months after last year's harvest, Smith's distillery has the faint, sweet smell of mint oil, and walk into Smith's house and a slight hint of mint wafts through the air.
Mint oil is used in flavoring everything from shampoo to candy and toothpaste. The industry is also seeing more mint being used in aromatherapy.
"It's an enjoyable crop to raise," Smith says. "It's a clean crop, and of course it smells good."
It also challenges his agronomy skills.
"You think you know something about it, and climate conditions can prove you wrong pretty fast," he says.
Mint requires heavy irrigation. Farmers apply about a half inch of water a week to keep their crops healthy.
"Our irrigation bill is ugly," Smith says.
Mint, a perennial, is harvested by a chopper towed behind a tractor. The mint leaves are blown into semitrailers that when filled are parked next to the distillery. Inside the distillery, a gigantic boiler powered by a 250,000,000 BTU furnace pushes steam into the trailers. The vaporized mint oil is then piped into condensing bins, where it's cooled by water, turning it back into an oil. The oil then drops into a bin where the oil and water are separated. The expensive oil is then piped into drums.
Sitting on the cement floor of Smith's open-air distillery are several 55-gallon drums. When filled with mint oil, they're worth about $4,500 each. It's quite a process to get it there. "It looks pretty neat at that time, but considering how many loads of cooked mint it takes to get there, you take a different perspective on it," Smith says.
Mint oil goes through a flavor analysis that buyers like Dale Sonstelie use to judge its qualities. Sonstelie has been a mint grower in the Flathead Valley for 24 years and has been a mint buyer for I.P. Callison since 1995.
"It's all bought by flavor," he says. "Smell equals flavor."
Sonstelie says mint prices are soft right now but should continue to climb.
As the Flathead Valley's mint production has been cut from a high of 15,000 acres to about 2,000 acres, mint buyers have tended to avoid this area, Smith says. One thing the Flathead Valley has going for it, though, is a high-quality product.
Higher-production areas like the Willamette Valley and the Madras area of Oregon capture a large portion of the mint production in the Northwest.
Even though it has a short growing season of about 90 days, the Flathead Valley has been a good place to grow mint because of the warm days and cool nights.
With a flat market, agriculture researchers are trying new things for mint. Duane Johnson, superintendent of the Northwest Agriculture Research Center in Creston, is working on several new twists on uses for mint and crops that are raised like mint.
He's studying different varieties of mint, like chocolate, citrus and lavender, that might appeal to the market. Johnson is also studying how peppermint or spearmint can be used as herbicides for plants or insecticides for animals.
When mint or spearmint oil is put in a shampoo and used on horses or cattle, it tends to keep flies away, Johnson says.
As a herbicide, the mint oil would be heavily diluted and sprayed over a crop. It would naturally deteriorate with time.
Johnson has also looked at a way to use mint as a deer repellent — a use that could be highly prized in Montana, where deer tend to devour gardens and a foolproof method other than fencing has been proven to keep them out.