Minty-fresh harvest: Northwood farmer is last in state to grow mint
NORTHWOOD -- The only mint farmer in North Dakota is about ready to begin harvesting his unusual and aromatic crop.
"We should get going this weekend, or early next week," Troy Uglem of Northwood said Thursday.
On a recent sunny day Uglem led visitors through a small plot of spearmint, its tangy scent hanging in the air even before he picked a stem, crushing the arrow-like leaves in his hand, making it palpable.
The specialty crop is only a small part of his 4,000-acre farming operation. But it's clear Uglem doesn't mind being the only one of the state's 30,000 farmers growing mint.
Nobody in Minnesota grows it; one farmer near Pierre, S.D., grows it.
The mint oil Uglem harvests is used to flavor gum, toothpaste, food and liqueurs.
His first production of mint oil was 2001, after two years of planting.
"It's not like any other crop grown around here," Uglem said.
First, it's planted not from seed, but through "root propagation," he said.
In the spring he lifts up the roots of the, say, 1 acre of nursery plants he put in the year before into a "reverse manure spreader," which then spreads the roots across new acres; last year's single acre becomes 10 acres, then 100 in the third year. After about five years of production, the planting cycle starts over on a new field.
The harvest also is strange: The plants are chopped with a haylage-style forage-maker, the leaves and stems loaded into big steel enclosed "tubs."
The tubs are placed under piping and hoses hooked up to the bottom. Steam is forced through the chopped crop, lifting the oil from the leaves into a vapor, which is piped under pressure into a nearby still.
Cooled, the vapor becomes oil and water. The oil, pure mint extract -- clear, not green -- is put into 55-gallon drums ready for shipping.
They eventually get sold to gum and toothpaste makers. One barrel can flavor 5.2 million sticks of gum, according to the Mint Industry Research Council. A small portion of the production goes to flavoring food and liqueurs.
A little goes a long way.
"Bobbie loves to use it in cooking," Uglem said, referring to his wife. "It only takes a tiny drop to flavor a whole pan of brownies."
"It's a high-input crop" that requires more chemicals, as well as big investments in equipment, Uglem said. "It's not something that someone is going to jump into and try one year, then jump out of the next year."
At his production of 40 to 50 pounds of spearmint oil per acre, garnering $8 to $15 per pound, his crop grosses $300 to $750 an acre.
That sounded much better a decade ago.
The past five years wheat, corn and bean prices and production have been so high, it's more difficult to "pencil out" profits raising spearmint, Uglem said. He's reduced his mint acres to 100 this year, a third or less what he used to grow.
A decade ago Uglem was one of three farmers in the state growing it; the others were Bob Landman of Northwood and Dwight Johnson of Park River. Landman got out several years ago. Johnson quit last year.
Johnson said he started growing spearmint a decade ago "when wheat was really low in price." Farming more acres of other crops, a tough winter on mint and problems during spring planting convinced him to quit last year.
"It's more difficult growing such a specialty crop," he said. "If you have trouble, you can't just go to a neighbor and say, 'How do you do this,' because nobody else knows."
Even agricultural extension agents in these parts don't have much to say about mint, he said.
Being a small crop also carries a down side.
The federal subsidies for crop insurance for mint aren't as hefty as they are for conventional crops with long production histories in the state, which makes growing it riskier, Johnson said.
Besides competition from other crops, U.S. mint faces foreign competition, too. In just the past decade, U.S. production, which once dominated the world market with 70 percent of total production, slipped to 40 percent or less, industry sources say. Most of the U.S. crop is grown in Washington and Oregon.
Uglem's spearmint harvest doesn't last long but it demands intense teamwork, he said. Running a boiler with high-pressure steaming is no small craft and not something used on other farms.
Troy and Bobbie are joined by his father, Don, and two or three employees, during mint harvest's hectic pace.
Kids and visitors are disinvited; too much danger, too much that can go wrong.
"There is nothing about mint that is not labor intensive," Uglem said.
"When guys ask me about mint now, I just tell them that wheat, corn and beans are a lot easier to grow than mint," Johnson said. But it's still a unique crop that offers profits to any young farmer with "energy and ambition," he said.
Uglem fits that bill.
Last year, he and his wife were named one of four Outstanding Young Farmers of America, a rare honor. They have two boys and two girls, all under 12.
Spearmint farming is unlike anything else he does, which is part of the deal, Uglem admitted. "I like trying new things."