LOVE THAT CANDY CANE? THANK A MINT FARMER
- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
In our house, Christmas really begins when the first box of candy canes makes it way home.
A purist, I like my candy canes in stripes of red and white with a blast of fresh peppermint. In my opinion, if it's any other color or flavor, it's a curved stick of hard candy, not a candy cane.
Just after the Thanksgiving weekend, I savored my first candy cane of the season. Marveling in the perfect mix of sweet and refreshing, I remembered something local mint farmer Steve Weishaar said to me a couple years ago.
He was talking about the consistency of the flavor of peppermint. About how when we brush our teeth, or pop that piece of gum into our mouths or unwrap that first candy cane of the holiday we expect it to taste just like it did the last time.
"There's an art to growing peppermint that will be consistent in its flavor," he told me at the time.
And I realized that thanks to Steve Weishaar and other mint farmers like him, Christmas is a little bit fresher and sweeter for the rest of us.
I'd never thought about it before, but according to Weishaar, the Fortune 500 companies in Manhattan are pretty picky about their peppermint. Which means that a mint farmer in Union County has to be, too.
"Gotta have a really clean field to get that flavor," says veteran Union County farmer Stan Weishaar. "That means spraying and a lot of hand weeding."
"It all starts with a clean field," agrees son Steve, clean as in "no weeds."
Weeds create a distinct flavor and odor that will adversely impact the mint oil, he explains. Since Weishaar Brothers Farm is going for the sweet, minty flavor that makes the best gum, toothpaste or candy canes, it means prepping the ground with basic chemicals early on to control later weed growth. But even chemicals can adversely impact the broadleafed mint, so the Weishaars try to use as few chemicals on their mint as possible. They have opted for the extraordinary effort and expense of hand hoeing their fields before harvest.
"We do it the hard way. What we do might be more expensive, but, in my opinion, you get a better product," Steve says. "We're catering to the tastes and needs of some very large companies."
Harvest is about the timing and experience and luck. As with any farming enterprise, dealing with nature is always a gamble and sometimes mint harvest is a matter of catching up to nature.
Moisture, soil and temperature all affect the chemistry of the mint plant. Weishaar has invested plenty of time walking through mint fields and learning to read them. Distinguishing between a mature plant at the peak of oil perfection, a juvenile plant in which the oil is not fully developed, and a plant past its maturity with elevated levels of other chemicals is both an art and a science.
There are a lot of chemicals in mint oil, Weishaar says, and all can adversely affect the flavor if the balance isn't just right. One example of another chemical opbtained from peppermint is menthol which may be used in medicines, cigarettes and industrial uses.
"That sweet pepperminty flavor is a small percentage. Once that's been extracted, the oil buyers we sell to will market the rest of those chemical by-products, too," he says.
Mint oil is big business big, global business. According the state Department of Agriculture, Oregon leads the U.S. in growing peppermint and Union County leads the state.
Though the current release from the Oregon Department of Agriculture states Union County produces approximately 25 percent of the state's 18th-ranked commodity, Weishaar suspects that data is outdated.
"I think it's higher than that," he says confidently.
Central Oregon used to be a big peppermint growing area, Weishaar says, but with problems related to wilt, the mighty mint fields of Central Oregon have all but disappeared.
"There's nothing left there. Willamette Valley grows some. The Klamath Falls area is growing more and more, but they have water issues," he says.
In 1991, state statisitcs indicated farmers in Union County claimed a 78,000-pound piece of the mint market that year. But with the advent and improvements to irrigation practices, production has continued to increase.
Union County farmer Pete Nilsson recently completed a stint as chairman of the Oregon Mint Commission. He says local mint production has been holding pretty steady for the past decade. Nilsson estimates Union County harvests approximately 7,000 to 8,000 acres of mint at 70 to 80 pounds per acre. The math translates that to an average of 550,000 pounds annually.
That's a lot of home grown candy canes.