It’s well into harvest season for a crop that's a key ingredient in everything from the gum you chew and the toothpaste you use: Spearmint. In this report, we look into what it takes to harvest the specialty crop as well as this year’s condition in northern Indiana.
Swiftly mowing pass after pass, chances are you recognize the machinery but not the field of green underneath it.
“The hay is getting over mature. It’s time to put it in the barrel,” said South Bend, Ind., mint grower Randy Matthys.
He said the first spearmint harvest of the season is well underway, but he is also running a little behind. “We’re probably 10 to 15 percent off yield right now because of late harvest and all of the rains,” Matthys said.
He got a late start due to ample rainfall. A full week of field work has certainly helped. “It can handle a lot of water, but it can’t sit in water,” said Matthys.
While that sounds like most crops, mint is a perennial crop. However it’s not the plant that companies want, but the oil it produces.
“The oil is the crop. It’s not all this mint hay. We’re getting the oil out of this hay,” he explained.
Mint typically thrives when grown near the 41st parallel, according to Matthys, who doesn't have a lot of company. There are fewer than 300 growers in the entire country.
In terms of this year's mint crop, Matthys said it's fair, but should be producing more oil. Late-season rains could risk bursting the oil glands on the leaves.
“There’s a point in the plant’s life where we’re at peak oil content. You want it there. It peaks out and declines. I think with all the rains, we’re on the decline side of that,” he said.
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After the spearmint is mowed, Matthys says it usually lays for about 48 hours to make sure it’s not too wet or dry before he comes to chop it and put it in the mint tub. When the mint tubs are all full, up to 7 tons of crop, they are all transported here, to the mint distilller, where harvesting continues.
“The mint distiller is the whole meat and potatoes of the whole operation, if you will,” said Matthys. One hose supplies steam, while the other tubes extract the oil through vapor. The tube carries vapor to the condensing area, which separates oil and water.
“Oil, being lighter than water, will separate and float to the top within these separator cans,” said Matthys.
All to be put in the barrel to soon be made into everyday products.
“Anything we produce is pretty much under contract. We work with a dealer or handler, and they in turn will contract to Wrigleys or Colgate--the big users,” the mint farmer said.
While the equipment and steamer runs for hours, Matthys will soon mow another pass in the fall to harvest another small crop with a big job. After getting the oil, Matthys puts the mint hay across fields either for nutrient value or to switch up rotations. Matthys says he’s wrapping up spearmint harvest by the end of this week. Then, it’s on to peppermint.