MINT IN UNION COUNTY, IT'S BIG BUSINESS
If you've ever smoked a menthol cigarette, drank peppermint tea, or relied on various pharmaceuticals to cure your ills, then the mint industry affects you.
And though you've probably never thought much about it, you have a favorite brand of toothpaste for a reason. When you plop that paste on your toothbrush, you expect it to taste exactly the same every single time you put it in your month.
Mint oil production is an exact, sophisticated science.
Mint oil is also big business Â—big, global business. And according to a recent report from the state Department of Agriculture, Oregon leads the U.S. in the production of peppermint.
In 1991, farmers in Union County claimed a 78,000 pound piece of that market which grew to almost 578,000 pounds of production by 2000.
Local grower Steve Weishaar, of Weishaar Brothers Farms, says that piece is now closer to 700,000 pounds annually.
So not only does mint affect your personal, daily life here on earth, but it also affects the broader, fiscal health of Union County.
Agricultural production costs continue to rise which affects farmers abilities to ensure profits Â—profits that, in turn, help sustain local economies.
Three years ago, Steve Weishaar sat in an Oregon Mint Commission meeting and heard the announcement there were federal grant monies available to do research with specialty crops, and was anyone was interested in applying?
"I raised my hand," he recalls, slightly shaking his head, "and said, Â‘We should do something.' They all looked at me and said, Â‘OK, do something.'"
So Weishaar came home and began to look seriously at something he, and others, had often pondered but had never taken to the next level.
Although mint production had been researched and developed Â— improved irrigation, weed and pest control methods, for examples Â— no one had seriously looked into improving mint oil harvest methods.
Weishaar took a hard look at Weishaar Brothers extraction process starting with their big, gold mint tubs.
"Mint tub technology hadn't changed since ...," Weishaar's eyes narrow as he thinks, "... forever." He smiles
Evidently, the company that had been making the mint tubs for two generations the Weishaar's use, had never seen any need to change a design that worked pretty well. The second generation of that mint tub manufacturing family Â— now well into his 80s, Weishaar says Â— seemed to have the mind set, if it's not broke, why fix it?
Basically, mint oil extraction is a simple, stilling process. A boiler converts water into steam which is then pumped through pipes in the bottom of the tub to work up through the mint in a process Weishaar calls "breakthrough." Once the steam "breaks through" a load of mint, rising to the top of the tub, the cooking begins releasing the oil from the chopped leaves.
When the vapor from this process reaches the top of the tub, it has become a mixture of steam and mint oil. This vapor is then forced through more pipes into a condenser which cools the vapor with more water, transforming it into a liquid.
This mixture then moves into receiving cans Â—metal cones Weishaar calls Â‘teepees' Â— partially filled with hot water where the oil, being lighter, separates and rises to the top. From there, the oil is drawn and stored in a tank before being transferred into 50-gallon metal drums.
Weishaar Brothers also run the separated water from the bottom of the teepees through one final filter to extract every last drop of the precious oil.
Simple. And expensive.
"It takes about two hours to run a tub through this process," Weishaar says.
That includes trucking it out of the field, he says, plus time spent at the still processing, and then hauling it back out to the field for dumping.
Running 12-hour shifts during harvest, with each tub holding one acre of chopped mint, it means only 6 acres per shift can be processed per stall. With eight stalls at the still that equates to a maximum of 48 acres per 12-hour shift.
Weishaar Brothers are processing 1,400 acres of mint this harvest.
So, what Steve Weishaar did with their federal grant monies was this:
First, he decided to insulate some of the mint tubs to retain heat, thereby conserving energy. The temperature on an insulated tub's external wall registers around 100 degrees, while the wall of the non-insulated tub's registers about twice that.
Then, Weishaar decided to challenge the time-honored process of increasing the pressure of the steam into the tub to hasten breakthrough and cooking.
"I thought, Â‘How do I get through the breakthrough process and cook it faster?' And I realized it isn't the pressure of the steam, it's the volume of steam that's key," he says.
By redesigning the configuration of existing pipes into the tub and increasing the diameter of one pipe by a mere half-inch, Weishaar had modified the steam delivery system enough to shorten the cooking time by about one-third.
"That may not sound like a lot," Weishaar says, "until you multiply it by 1,400 acres."
Now Weishaar is talking about developing a conversion kit for growers to adapt their existing mint tubs with a steam delivery system of increased volume. It's cheaper than buying a new tub.
"We want to keep the costs down. Now we have something to show growers we know will impact production costs," he says.
Weishaar Brothers have also teamed up with Juniper Manufacturing out of Redmond for phase two of research and development on mint stilling.
This year, they converted one of the condensers that cools the steam/oil vapor mixture to a new design. It forces the steam into the condenser in a spiraling motion rather than a straight downward shot. This moves the steam in a broader dispersal pattern to more of the small tubes inside the condenser, allowing the water circulating around the small tubes inside to work more efficiently.
"(The redesigned condenser) uses less water and cools the vapor faster," Weishaar says simply.
And one of the receiving cans where the oil is separated from the water has also been redesigned to an experimental, larger teepee.
"It's all about improving the process to make it faster, cleaner and help us become more competitive in the world market," Weishaar says.
Well, Steve Weishaar has been thinking about adding an in-line turbine and using some of that steam produced by their massive 700 horsepower boiler to create enough power to run a generator for electricity to use in the stilling process.
Now, he's really cooking.