North State Peppermint Growers
By Laura Christman
The hint of mint in your toothpaste, latte or body wash might have come from peppermint plants grown in the North State.
Or maybe not. It’s tough to tell with mint. Unlike a hay crop that’s baled and trucked to a specific buyer, the final destination of peppermint oil is elusive.
“We produce a crop and don’t know where it goes,” says Mike McKoen, an owner of Three M Mint in the Tule Lake Basin. “We are somewhat in the dark.”
Dan Brosten, purchasing agent for A.M. Todd Co. headquartered in Kalamazoo, Mich., says peppermint oils from different regions – each with unique characteristics – are blended. The concoction depends on how the blend will be used. A lot of peppermint oil ends up in mouthwash and toothpaste. It also is featured in gum, candy, energy drinks, liqueurs, beauty products and pharmaceuticals.
Fall River Valley and Tule Lake Basin are the only places in California where peppermint is a commercial crop. The herbaceous perennial is mostly grown in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and the Midwest. The Northern California region, which includes parts of Shasta, Siskiyou, Lassen and Modoc counties, is just a small slice of the peppermint pie but its oil has a reputation for quality.
“Our climate results in oil that is very desirable in the mint industry,” says Travis Corder, general manager of Corder Farms in McArthur.
“The stuff out of Northern California does have a nice uniqueness to it,” Brosten says.
The reputation for quality is the essence of why growers in the region remain in the peppermint game.
“The only reason we are in the business is because of the quality of our oil. We cannot produce and compete with low-cost producers in Washington and Idaho that produce on a much, much larger scale,” McKoen says.
Oil is extracted from chopped leaves at farmer-owned distilleries. The nuances of the oil reflect growing conditions. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) likes lots of long, warm days and cool nights during the growing season.
“It does well here,” says farmer Allen Albaugh of Pittville.
Albaugh is known as the grandfather of peppermint in Fall River Valley. He planted the first peppermint in the late 1980s. Albaugh wanted to see how peppermint worked as a rotation crop – something Eastern Shasta County farmers could add to the mix of producing crops like hay or garlic. Diversification is important because pests and diseases build up in fields where the same crop grows year after year.
Mint interest spread. At one point there were 18 or so peppermint growers, Albaugh says. That’s down to four. “It’s had its ups and downs. You’re kind of at the mercy of the people who buy your product,” Albaugh says.
The crop shrank from some 2,000 acres to 300 to 400 acres in the valley, Corder says. “Hopefully that trend will change, but time will tell.”
Nationwide, farms are consolidating, resulting in larger operations controlling more acreage. And that makes it difficult for small growers to compete. North State growers face competition from lower-priced imported oil, mostly from India, as well as synthetic oil. Root borers and late spring frosts are additional difficulties.
“It certainly has been challenging, but we’re doing it, so I guess you could say it’s worked out well,” McKoen says. He and his father, Leo, were the first to bring peppermint to the Tule Lake Basin. They started growing it in 1996.
“We’re always interested in a new opportunity and it seemed like a new adventure,” McKoen says. As in the Fall River Valley, others joined in but not all have stayed with peppermint.
“I would say we’ve lost about half a dozen growers,” McKoen says.
“It sort of peaked in 2008 and 2009, and now it’s pretty steady,” says Rob Wilson, director of the University of California Intermountain Research and Extension Center in Tulelake.
McKoen says close to 3,000 acres of peppermint in the basin are grown for oil, with another 1,000 acres in production for dried tea leaves.
Peppermint is not a silver-bullet crop. But for farmers who grow wheat, barley, oats, onions, potatoes or alfalfa, it’s “another crop to bring into the rotation,” Wilson says. “I think it is a crop that is here to stay,” he says.