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Published September 14, 2010, 07:30 AM

Washington mint harvest under way

YAKIMA, Wash. — Ryan Ferguson winces when he leans too close to the mint oil pouring from his still.

By: Ross A. Courtney, Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. — Ryan Ferguson winces when he leans too close to the mint oil pouring from his still.

He pulls his head back inside his shop and drapes a yellow rag over a spout, directing the fumes into a vent.

“When it’s flowing, you do not want to get it too close to your nose,” he said. “It hurts.”

Fortunately for Ferguson, 38, he has a lot of mint oil to sniff — or avoid sniffing. He has to sniff the overpowering aroma sometimes to check the distillation progress, but otherwise tries to keep his distance.

Ferguson is among some Yakima Valley mint growers in the middle of the season’s second cutting. They’re hoping high yields now will make up for low ones from July’s first cuttings, which were dampened by rain and cool weather in the spring.

So far so good, Ferguson said. His second cutting is coming close to compensating for his first.

“It’s really not that bad of a hit,” he said.

Mint growers don’t need another hit this year.

Like any crop, mint has price cycles.

But overall, the industry has been sluggish the past decade or so due to low prices caused by oversupply and competition from China and India. Synthetic mint flavoring, as well as fruit-flavored gum, are taking their toll, too.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show mint production, acreage and the number of farms dropping in the last five years, while imported mint oil has skyrocketed. Last year, the U.S. imported almost 3,500 metric tons of mint oil worth a value of $58 million.

“There’s a lot of things that are encroaching on the U.S. grower’s demand,” said Rod Christensen, executive director of the Washington Mint Commission. “It’s tough. It’s really a competitive business.”

With mint, a little goes a long way. One pound — roughly a pint — of mint oil flavors 12,500 sticks of chewing gum, 1,000 tubes of toothpaste and 50,000 mint candies.

That keeps the industry small and more prone to fluctuations in price and acreage, Christensen said. A drastic example happened about three years ago when Midwest farmers, lured by a spike in grain prices, took their mint acreage almost to zero, opting for corn instead, Christensen said.

Spooked by those fluctuations, farmers, dealers and buyers negotiated indexed contracts of three to five years based on costs of fuel, fertilizer and equipment. Those were signed last year when prices were relatively high, $16 per pound or so.

This year, spot prices — those negotiated without a contract — are about $13 per pound. Three years ago, they were between $20 and $30, depending on variety.

Other efforts to stabilize the market include the Far West Spearmint Marketing Order, a federal program approved by growers in the 1980s that regulates how much spearmint should be available on the market. Anything above that volume is stashed in reserves. (When stored properly, mint lasts more than 10 years.)

Washington is the nation’s leading producer of mint, with more than 30,000 acres and a value of $73 million, Christensen said.

Slightly less than half the state’s crop is grown in the Yakima Valley; the other half in the Columbia Basin near Othello, Christensen said.

When not distilling mint oil, Ferguson, 38, spends his days driving harvesters in his fields, which smell like a dusty, less-concentrated version of the stills.

In the field, mint looks like alfalfa with its leafy green, shin-high plants topped by purple blooms. And growers harvest it like alfalfa, mowing it and leaving the cut plants to dry in the fields for three or four days. Ferguson even calls it hay.

After the leaves dry, he scoops it up and hauls it into the still, where the oil in the leaves is boiled and steamed away and stored in steel 55-gallon drums.

The third-generation mint farmer just northwest of Harrah partners with his father, Wes, 72. They have about 600 acres of mint and keep seven to eight employees roughly nine months out of the year.

They did not sign an indexed contract last year, leery of committing to prices set to all the variables, Ferguson said. However, they do harvest some spearmint on a long-term contract.

Ferguson plans to sell his other variety, a new, niche product called erospicata, on the spot market. It’s grown only by a few area farmers.

He’s unsure how it’s used, but most manufacturers, such as Wrigley’s and Colgate, blend multiple varieties in many of their mint-flavored products.

The companies are secretive about how much they buy and how they use it, Ferguson and Christensen said. A Wrigley’s spokeswoman said she could not answer questions about raw material, while Colgate representatives did not return calls.

The other popular variety is peppermint. Ferguson doesn’t grow any, but many of his neighbors do.

Price fluctuations aside, Ferguson does not expect drastic changes in the mint industry. Nor does he anticipate more mint in the fields around the Yakima Valley. He plans to take out 90 acres next year.

Ferguson, a former Marine sergeant, relies primarily on mint for his income, though he also grows irrigated wheat and dill.

Mint, for now, is paying the bills, he said.

“It’s the primary income for us,” he said.

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