Flavorful row crop demands patience
List the 350 separate crops grown commercially in California by acreage, volume, value or number of growers and peppermint will be near the bottom.
Even though it is produced by fewer than a half dozen growers they help ensure that multiple millions receive their morning minty exhilaration by way of toothpaste or. perhaps, mouthwash. Later in the day the lift may come from a confection, a stick of gum, a cough drop, even a flavored toothpick or by a rubdown with one of dozens of personal care products.
Not only does peppermint attract a minimum number of growers but the production area is tucked away in the remote northeast corner of the state, part of it near the quaint-sounding Fall River Mills in Shasta County or in the Tulelake basin near the Oregon border in Modoc County. Anyone looking for the state’s four mint stills will have to find the community of Hatfield, where two of them are located.
Most of the harvested leaves of the peppermint plant are distilled by steam to produce the oil that becomes an actively traded and essential commodity. The oil is produced in several states across the country, and blends are created from oils from different areas, a delicate craft responsible for preserving established flavors from year to year for discriminating end users.
Experts say California’s mint oils are preferred by the industry because of their consistent flavor. Seed produced in California is also highly preferred. Some mint leaves are dried and later ground to become part of herbal teas.
Only four growers produce peppermint on about 3,500 acres in California. A fifth utilizes acreage in California, but also grows the crop in Oregon. Other western states where mint is grown include Washington, Nevada and Idaho. It is grown in the upper Midwest and in some southern states, where ever warm days and cool nights prevail.
At the University of California’s Intermountain Research and Extension Center(IREC) in Tulelake five acres of peppermint is being grown to help the research team there become acquainted with all aspects of the crop: fertilizer and other nutritional needs, control measures for weeds, pests and disease, irrigation requirements, harvesting and distilling details and other handling characteristics.
Since mint was introduced to California only 20 years ago, learning about its characteristics and making that knowledge available to growers has been like taking a crash course. A cost production study done by the University of California is available to guide would-be growers.
While peppermint must be catalogued as a specialty crop, most of the equipment used in its culture is the kind required by other crops with similar growth characteristics. For example, harvesting is done by a swather that is commonly used in a dozen other row crops. Once seeded, peppermint can grow for years. One planting in the restricted northern California area has produced steadily for 13 years.
A frustrating characteristic of the crop is its unpredictability in regard to harvest date. When summer weather cools abnormally harvest can be delayed by two weeks or more beyond the normal date of Aug. 1. It’s one of the primary reasons Tulelake grower and distiller Lee McKoen says a mint grower’s main resource must be patience.
McKoen, who grows mint on about 600 acres, bought a still as part of his first field of mint. He has doubled the size of the still in Hatfield. Other stills are located in Big Valley and Hat Creek.
The state’s peppermint production area is interspersed by picturesque and lightly populated communities, some overshadowed by Mount Shasta or Mount Lassen – in some cases, both. Purveyors there invite tourists, fishermen and vacationers to come, relax and enjoy the quiet and the beauty, and most of all, smell not the roses, but the mint.
Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant in the Valley. His column appears each Monday in The Recorder.