Number of Flathead mint growers declining
KALISPELL, Mont. -- If you're brushing your teeth with Colgate toothpaste, there's a chance you're supporting local farmers, in a roundabout kind of way. After all, Flathead County is home to the four remaining mint operations in the state, but e...
KALISPELL, Mont. -- If you're brushing your teeth with Colgate toothpaste, there's a chance you're supporting local farmers, in a roundabout kind of way. After all, Flathead County is home to the four remaining mint operations in the state, but even those farmers know there is more history to Montana's mint farms than there is future.
But Flathead's enduring mint farmers are intent on staying upright in a market that has become increasingly saturated by foreign operations in countries such as China and India. They know they have the proper climate and the willpower to keep growing mint, but whether they have the appropriate economic conditions remains to be seen.
When Ken Smith began growing mint 16 years ago, he said there were up to 9,000 acres of land dedicated to mint farming in the valley and more than 30 growers. Today, there are only those last four operations working fewer than 1,000 acres, he said. Peppermint is the preferred crop, though there is some spearmint.
Besides Smith, the three other mint-growing families in the area are the Tutvedts, Fishers and Passmores. Gov. Brian Schweitzer was a mint farmer near Whitefish before taking office.
"It used to be a real big industry here," Smith said. "Now it's kind of a dying industry. But we still think it's important."
Dan Brosten of Kalispell works for a brokerage firm out of Kalamazoo, Mich., that buys mint from growers and sells it to companies such as Procter and Gamble, Wrigley's and Colgate. Brosten is his firm's lone buyer in Montana. When there were more operations, his jurisdiction was restricted to the state. But today he also buys in Canada and the Midwest.
Brosten said he remembers when there were mint growers in Forsyth, Bozeman, Belgrade, Hamilton, Plains and Thompson Falls. But those have since died out, leaving the Flathead as the final frontier for Montana mint. The four Flathead operations are the only ones that still "quantifiably grow mint," Brosten said.
With its warm days and cool nights, the Flathead has good growing conditions for mint, though harsh winters sometimes lead to winterkill. Brosten said if you traced the arc of mint operations along a global map, you would see that most mint is grown "within 200 miles north or south of the parallel where we are."
Major American hotspots for mint growing include Oregon's Willamette Valley, parts of Washington and Idaho, and Indiana. Southern Alberta is a major supplier as well. Brosten said 75 percent of mint oils are used in the oral health care industry, namely toothpaste.
Flathead's mint has long been considered desirable, both Brosten and Smith said. The growing season here starts in April and goes until mid or late August, which is harvest time. Over the years, Smith said he has learned to diversify his crops, to the point that this year he grew more dill than mint.
By not relying on the whims of an often-volatile mint market, Smith has been able to stay in business. He listed canola, peas, lentils, fava beans and sorghum as other options for diversifying crops in the Flathead. But there's no foolproof way to protect oneself against the changing markets.
"Last year commodity prices were through the roof and this year they're in the basement," Smith said.
Gary Brester, a professor in Montana State University's Department of Agricultural Economics, said in commodity markets like mint, it's necessary to diversify like Smith does. Though diversification is a fundamental concept of farming in general, it is particularly vital when the good has a relatively small supply and is vulnerable to any shifts in the base supply, Brester said.
"A few people start growing the crop and it disrupts the system," he said.
Small- to mid-scale commodity farming also depends largely on contracts, with few options in future markets and crop insurance, Brester said. Add China and India to the mix, with their labor structure and lack of regulations, and Brester said mint producers have to aim for "incredibly low prices."
"There's not going to be a lot of folks who can withstand those low prices," he said. "It's kind of the bane of these specialty crops."
In addition to those inherent difficulties, Brosten said mint is very expensive to grow, which he called "a tremendous barrier of entry." Furthermore, lending institutions are less likely to hand out money to mint farmers than 15 years ago when the domestic industry was stronger. And, of course, mint operations face the same difficulties of high input prices that all farmers do today.
With that said, neither Brosten nor Smith are making any bold predictions about the future. Smith said mint growers have hired a Washington scientist to research how to better use mint harvests. As an example, he said the scientist may look into using mint in perfumes.
"The farming industry in general is going to have to get a little more specialized," Smith said.