By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
HAINES You may not make a mint growing it, but one side benefit is obvious: its the smell. The sweet smell of mint oil distilling permeates everything it touches, including a visitors tear ducts.
It may be the most pleasant and perhaps the most overpowering odor in all of agriculture.
At the Maxwell Century Ranch in Haines, the past 10 days or so have seen the cutting, drying, and distilling of what is no doubt Baker Countys smallest, most pungent cash crop peppermint.
Between them, the Ward family and the Maxwell family Alan and Pam and children Robbie Lee and Jarred farm about 400 acres of peppermint. That represents the entire peppermint crop in all of Baker County, according to County Extension Agent Jay Carr.
Depending on the amount of bloom on the plant, mid-August usually signals its harvest time. After the mint is cut and dries for a day on the ground, the real fun and that wonderful smell begins in earnest.
Mint leaves, which have been cut into two-inch sections, are blown into a container called a tub. The tubs are large moveable containers with steam vents on the bottom. When steam is blown into the tub, the distilling process begins. At the Maxwell operation, three tubs wait in line as the mint is prepared for the still.
The mint steam is processed from the tubs to a condenser, where its cooled to liquid form before its run through the still.
One of the reasons why mint farming isnt for everybody is the cost of the still, according to Pam Maxwell. Her familys still itself cost a small mint $80,000.
Operating at about 110 degrees, the still separates the mint oil from the water. The oil is then stored in large drums, where it is sold to a broker who in turn sells it to companies like Colgate for flavor in toothpaste and to a bubble gum manufacturer.
The pervasive smell keeps me from chewing gum for about two months, Maxwell said, but its apparently a drawing card for the neighbors. One brings his wife over every morning, Maxwell said. One good sniff, the man says, and his wifes snoring is cured for another day.
In the distilling process, nothing is wasted, except for the water the steam produces. While theyre still steaming from being distilled, the spent leaves are placed in a large pile near a field of alfalfa. The brown goo makes excellent mulch, Maxwell said, and, since its sterile, no weed seeds can grow in it.
About five years ago, when Maxwell was beginning her mint-growing career, she decided to see just how potent her product was. She mixed one-eighth of a teaspoon of the oil in a batch of cookies. The result, she said, was three dozen completely inedible cookies.
Maybe I overdid it a little, she said with a smile.
Later, she found out that one drop of her mint oil is enough to flavor 1,000 sticks of chewing gum.
Since that day, Maxwell has learned to go easy with her potent product. She said she enjoys putting a dab in a cotton ball and tossing the cotton underneath her car seat. The homemade air freshener lasts a good long time, she said, being sure that a visitor doesnt escape without a tiny bottle of the stuff and a dropper to parcel it out carefully.
Most of the states peppermint used to be produced in Jefferson County near Madras, Carr said, but an outbreak of a fungus called verticillium wilt put an end to that. Now most Oregon peppermint is grown in Union County.
Peppermint is a perennial, so once its in the ground, its there forever until a fungus gets hold of it, Carr said. Maxwell said her family is working hard to ensure that doesnt happen.
In Baker County, mint oil sold last year for about $12.50 per pound, Carr said. The 400 acres produced about 83 pounds per acre; 75 pounds per acre is considered average, he said.
Its not as lucrative as potatoes, but it pays more than alfalfa, Maxwell said. Alan has long believed that if youre going to make it, it pays to diversify.