New Tech is Revolutionizing the Pacific Northwest Mint Industry
Mint, of the Mentha genus, has its uses as a culinary and homeopathic product. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are mostly grown in Pacific Northwest states like Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Although it was predominantly grown on farms in Upstate New York in the late 1800s, mint agriculture saw a shift in the early 1900s to states in the Great Lakes region like Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Come 1950, mint farmers encountered a devastating, plant-eating disease called verticillium wilt.
This drove mint production farther and farther westward to temperate areas where Mentha plants ultimately flourished. The production scale of these items has evolved to meet the needs of a growing consumer base. Over the last decade, the mint industry has developed more and more uses for the plant, sparking a lucrative industry whose outputs include commodities like hydrosols, salves, incense, candles and essential oils.
In recent years, most of the industry’s essential oil production practices have changed in response to climate change. Condensers manufactured for steam distillation processes were once diesel-powered, but have since been converted to use cleaner fuels like propane and natural gas. Other than this change, the industry’s harvesting processes have remained largely unchanged since their development in the Pacific Northwest.
Shane Johnson, Executive Director of the Washington Mint Commission, explained that the Mint Industry Research Council (MIRC)—a nationwide collective of mint manufacturers, buyers, growers and researchers—works constantly in all spheres of the industry to enhance the production and quality of the plant through scientific research.
“They’ve been funding studies on pain management and alertness,” Johnson said. “Those are the kinds of things they’re looking at using mint products for.”
The MIRC Spring 2019 newsletter showcases advancements in distillation practices. VSG Associates, a company based out of Boise, Idaho, proposed its innovative mint distillation technology to the MIRC but was turned down despite promising beta tests that yielded wetter, supervenient steam. The methodology developed by VSG Associates involves the trapping of energy that is lost in traditional distillation practices—mostly by eliminating steam headers, which are responsible for the loss of pressurized steam in boiler systems.
Although Weigold’s request for funding was turned down, Steve Salisbury, research and regulatory coordinator for the MIRC, said that he plans to oversee the tech’s further developments.
“We don’t feel at this time that it is in our scope to look for a capital venture type of project,” Salisbury said in a MIRC newsletter. “If VSG can get this beta project off the ground, that could generate the need for some further distillation research and the MIRC may be interested in helping fund it.”
Salisbury went on to say that VSG’s tech is promising and has the potential to reinvent traditional methods by allowing for a greater quantity of steam to be captured by condensers.
As for the irrigation of both spearmint and peppermint, MIRC has improved spray application technology through testing completed in 2018. Through the use of low-elevation spray applications (LESA) and low-elevation precision applications (LEPA), fewer mint plants are destroyed during irrigation. Mid-elevation spray applications (MESA) have been considered less effective than LESA and LEPA because unlike MESA, low-elevation applications are able to pump up to 20 percent more water per gallon to the ground. Thus, preserving sustainability through the use of more effective spray applications decreases the amount of water lost as runoff.
Results from the testing have shown that through the use of improved spray application technology, yields of spearmint and peppermint alike increased.
The mint industry is on the verge of implementing tech that will revolutionize the way growers harvest and manufacture their products. According to the MIRC, VSG Associates have provoked the attention of companies in food processing, power generation and agricultural chemical application equipment.
Canadian producer Dale Thacker explained that this innovative steam distillation technology has a solid scientific backing that will likely ensure future funding by the MIRC.
“It generates steam in a fashion that traditionally we haven’t even considered… and it appears to have good science behind it.” Thacker said in the same MIRC newsletter.
The implementation of VSG’s nuanced steam distillation methods would be a stunning breakthrough for the mint industry as a whole and have the potential to accelerate the already rapidly-evolving agricultural sustainability movement.
James Baratta is a sophomore Journalism major who buys mint by the bundle. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.