Apr 7, 2007Wappel Farms Thrives on Mint
Mint farming is a tricky business that involves specialized equipment, efforts to thwart soil disease and the constant threat of imports decreasing demand for American-grown mint, but Larry Wappel of San Pierre, Ind., has mastered the trade.
Wappel has been growing mint since 1988 and has seen the industry’s ups and downs.
“In the 20-year period we’ve been growing mint, we’ve seen mint oil prices as high as $55 a pound and as low as $7 a pound,” Wappel said. “I guess you can say we’ve weathered the storms.”
Wappel Farms is comprised of 5,000 acres, a mint distillery and a driveway full of unique farm equipment, all necessary for growing mint and extracting mint oil.
“Mint farming is very labor-intensive,” Wappel said. “There are a lot of steps involved in producing high-quality mint oil, and that’s what we do here.”
Wappel grows about 1,200 acres of mint each year, averaging a yield of 55 pounds of oil per acre. His crop is comprised of peppermint, which accounts for 90 percent of his mint acreage, and spearmint, which makes up the other 10 percent. The remaining acreage on the farm is used for corn, soybeans and six acres of oregano.
Mint grows from rootstock rather than seed, so Wappel had to design a machine capable of planting the rhizoid. Wappel harvests rootstock he has been growing and plants 15 acres for every acre of rootstock harvested. Though mint is a perennial, the plant loses productivity after three or four years. Wappel puts his mint fields on a six to nine year rotation with his other crops, since mint grows best on virgin soil.
When the growing season is over, Wappel harvests the mint hay with another piece of farm equipment specially designed for his crop. Though mint is mowed and dried like hay, care must be taken not to damage the oil glands on the underside of the mint.
Mint is a single-harvest crop as multiple cuttings can weaken regrowth, though Wappel will run a second cutting if the mint field is in its fourth and final productive year in the rotation. The harvest typically begins in July and ends the first week in September.
Dry mint hay is then chopped and brought from the field into Wappel’s distillery in large, enclosed wagons, called mint tubs. Steam is then pumped into the tubs, vaporizing the mint oil. The resulting oil and water vapor are siphoned into huge condensing tanks full of cool water. Once the vapors are cooled to liquid, the water is separated from the oil. Mint oil is lighter than water, so the oil floats, allowing separation. Because mint hay is corrosive, it is stored in galvanized barrels.
From there, the oil is sold to a broker who ships it to the end user.
Wappel said he makes sure that his mint oil is as pure as possible because purity equals quality. The oil is analyzed for herbicide residue before it is approved for human consumption. Regulations are tight, and mint oil will be rejected if even two parts per billion of unapproved herbicide is found. The still is cleaned with raw steam between peppermint and spearmint distillation to avoid contamination. The water used to cool the mint oil is redistilled in order to remove the last 1 or 2 percent of lingering mint oil. Once the water is clean, it can be used for irrigation.
The buyers sell Wappel’s oil, along with the oil from other farmers, to a variety of end users.
“Our mint oil gets blended with other farms’, and it goes all over the world,” Wappel said. Toothpaste, gum, candy and cleaning products can all benefit from Wappel’s mint oil.
“Everyone should go out and buy a case of Wrigley’s gum,” Wappel joked, singling out Wrigley’s because the company uses only American mint oil.
A Familye’s Future
For the Wappels, farming is a family affair. A third-generation farmer, Wappel said that his two sons are returning to the farm as well. Wappel said he is always happy to see American mint farms stay in a family.
“We take pride in stating that all of these mint farms are not corporate,” Wappel said. “These farms, they are family farm operations, and that’s what we hope to maintain. We’ve watched the other industries go the corporate way and we want to avoid that. This way definitely gives everything more of the personal touch of quality.”
There are threats to the American mint farmer, though.
“Right now, my two main concerns for American mint farming are imports and synthetic oils,” Wappel said.
Imported mint oils from China and India are becoming more and more prominent in the market because they are produced inexpensively. Synthetic oils could hurt mint farmers, too.
Wappel said that these risks are important to keep in mind but that American mint oil is still in high demand.
It’s that touch of quality Wappel is banking on to keep American mint farms running.
“The quality of foreign oil usually isn’t what ours is, and synthetic oils are still quite expensive. I am optimistic about the future because there will always be a demand for mint oil, and the demand is rising as Third World countries are starting to use more toothpaste and candy.”
For more information on Wappel Farms’ mint oil, visit www.mint-oil.com.