The harvest is on at Ward Farms in Baker City, and every nostril in the place is scrubbed clean.
You can’t see the fields.
But you don’t need to see the fields to name the crop.
Your nose will tell you.
And anyway your eyes might be watering, making it hard to focus.
The powerful scent of peppermint has an almost physical presence inside a nondescript metal building beside Chico Road at the north end of town.
Four hulking stainless steel vessels, each with a capacity of 500 gallons, line the west wall, looking rather like small-scale missile silos.
Jutting from the belly of each container is a pipe that issues a steady stream of clear, pungent liquid.
The vessels are condensers, and each is paired with a smaller metal cylinder.
The smaller receptacles are separators, and each is topped with a chimney-like circle about a foot and a half high.
These cylinders hold a bubbling liquid that emits an aroma so intense it seems unlikely that even the nastiest headcold could defy its ability to erode congestion.
“That’s 99 percent pure oil,” says Mark Ward, whose family has been growing peppermint in Baker Valley, and distilling oil from its leaves, since 1994.
Because mint oil is slightly less dense than the distilled water it’s mixed with in the condensers, the oil floats on top and collects in the chimneys.
From there the oil flows through pipes that empty into barrels, each of which can hold 400 pounds of oil.
To put into perspective the potency of this liquid, Ward points out that a tube of toothpaste contains a mere 2 grams of oil.
That’s considerably less than one drop from an eyedropper.
It’s not without reason that Ward jokes that the mint still is the “only place where you wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.”
Although he praises the oil’s muscle ache-relieving properties, suffice it to say that topical use is best confined to, say, shoulders and knees than to more, well, delicate places.
The Ward family has contracts to sell oil to two companies, both in the Yakima, Washington, area — Labbeemint and Norwest.
Ward said the mint oil distilled here mainly is used to infuse Colgate toothpaste.
That’s the goal, anyway.
The company has specific, and stringent, standards for oil.
“If we grow the oil they want, it’s going to Colgate,” Ward said. “If we don’t, I hear about it — often.”
He said a group of executives from the Colgate-Palmolive company traveled to Baker City last August to watch the distillation process.
That process completes a cycle that in some cases started six years earlier.
Ward said his family grows pep permint on a five-year rotation, meaning an individual field produces five crops before the field is planted with something else.
After five years the yield declines, and the plants become susceptible to insects and diseases, he said.
Peppermint is the Wards’ second-biggest crop besides potatoes. They also raise alfalfa, wheat, triticale and silage corn.
This year the Wards will harvest mint from about 350 acres. The process will take roughly two weeks, as they strive to cut about 25 acres per day.
The 2019 harvest ranges from fields planted six years ago, which will produce their fifth and final crop, to what Ward calls “baby mint.”
The family last year planted a 55-acre field, just south of Hughes Lane and west of the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway, that will yield its first crop this month.
Ward said some passers-by have asked him about the prevalence of weeds in that field, wondering if the crop was ailing.
Quite the opposite, he said.
“That’s one of the best baby mint fields we’ve ever had,” Ward said last week.
The abundance of weeds reflects the fledgling nature of the mint, he said.
“The first year we can’t use certain types of herbicides,” Ward said.
Next year, with the mint better established, the Wards will deal more aggressively with the weeds, he said.
Mint fields generally produce their most bountiful crops in their third and fourth years, Ward said.
In the fields
Regardless of the age of the crop, the timing of the harvest is based on the same criterion, Ward said.
The optimum time to cut mint, he said, is when the first bloom appears in a field.
“If the field’s totally bloomed, we’re too late,” he said.
If the mint is allowed to bloom too long the oil will have higher concentrations of a compound than the end users want, Ward said.
It’s important to maintain a variety of ages among the fields, he said, because the older the plants, the sooner they bloom.
Baby mint is the last to be harvested.
After the mint is cut it needs to lie on the ground for at least four days before it’s chopped, Ward said.
That allows the mint’s moisture content to drop toward the target of 30%.
During that period the crop, in common with alfalfa, is vulnerable to rain, which can snap off leaves. Because the leaves contain the oil, rain damage reduces the yield, Ward said.
His family’s crop suffered some losses from thundershowers that passed through Baker Valley earlier this month.
“The rain was a bad deal,” he said.
When the mint is ready, the chopper disgorges the crop into massive yellow-orange containers, called tubs, that are towed directly behind the chopper.
The filled tubs are parked in a line of four bays outside the still.
In the still
The defining characteristic of the still, besides the overwhelming aroma of mint, is heat.
A room on the north end of the building is packed nearly to capacity with a natural gas-powered 500-horsepower boiler.
The boiler produces 260-degree steam that travels through a network of pipes to the mint-stuffed tubs outside.
The steam, which enters near the bottom of the tubs at a pressure of about 16 pounds per square inch, rises through the chopped mint, capturing oil and water from the plants as it rises.
Vents at the tops of the tubs direct this oil-laden vapor into the condensers, where tubes filled with cold water condense the vapor into the liquid that then pours into the collectors.
Ward said a “great crop” will yield about 100 pounds of pure oil per acre.
“And that’s our goal, to grow a great crop,” he said.
Last week, with the harvest near its midpoint, Ward said production was running at about 80 pounds of oil per acre.
For perspective, that’s enough oil to put the bite, so to speak, in approximately 6,350,000 tubes of toothpaste.
(Colgate toothpaste, Ward emphasizes with a grin.)
A crop almost everybody notices
Ward said he has enjoyed growing mint, and producing oil, over the past quarter century.
One reason is that mint, though it’s a rather retiring plant, never growing too tall and lacking the lyrical inspiration of, say, amber waves of wheat, produces that unique and conspicuous aroma.
Ward said that when local residents ask him what he does for a living, and he tells them he’s a farmer who grows, among other things, mint, almost invariably he hears a variation on this theme — “I just love it when you’re harvesting.”
Mint fields, as anyone knows who’s stood downwind of one, produce a pleasant scent.
But the distillation process enhances that smell considerably. When the wind is blowing from the northwest, as it often does during August in Baker City, the pungency from the Wards’ still can permeate much of town.
Ward said just recently a motorcycle rider twice rolled past one of the family’s mint fiel ds before stopping at the still to tell Ward how nice it is ride next to a mint crop.
Ward admits, though, that it took some years before he truly appreciated mint as a cash crop.
In terms of gratifying growth, it’s something of a procrastinator, stubbornly holding out for hot weather.
“It’ll sit there and look at you for two months and grow maybe an inch while you’re putting hundreds of dollars per acre of water and fertilizer on it,” he said with a rueful chuckle. “And then about late June it decides to start growing.
“You’ve got to be very pa tient to grow mint.”