Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette
FARMING FOR FLAVOR, A DELICATE OPERATION
By Forest J. McComb
GLEN and VELMA SHANK moved from the Auburn area to Eel River Township, Allen County, in 1936, when they purchased 40 acres west of Huntertown. Thirty acres of the land was muck, and Glen, 24 years old, specialized in growing potatoes, carrots, some onions, broccoli and sweet corn.
Ten years later, at the close of World War II, the opportunity came to buy 303 acres of adjoining land, of which 120 acres was muck. It was a large project to tackle, but thinking ahead for the future of their four children, Glen and Velma decided to take the gamble, and expanded their operation to include the growing of mint. The high ground land purchased was kept in normal grain farming. It proved to be a good gamble, for all types of farming was good during the time of recovery after the war.
The fragrant juice of the mint plant dates back to Hebrew people of ancient Bible times. It was used extensively as an exotic scent and as a medicine, it being known to cure many bodily ills.
Later on, England further developed its growth and use, but the English farmer was under a severe handicap for he had to haul the crop to London to get it distilled.
Unknown Colonist Started the Mint
It is not known who the colonist was that started the mint plant growth in America, but one of the first Massachusetts colonists brought mint plant roots along. Today, both peppermint and spearmint are used extensively in the United States for flavoring chewing gum, candies, ice cream, cake, and in many medicines. It is grown where the land is favorable, clear across the nation from Massachusetts to Oregon, and well-drained muck land is found to be the best soil for it.
The production of mint oil is a delicate operation, requiring a vast investment of capital before it can be done on a practical basis. At first, Glen didn’t have a distillery, but hauled the crop to a distillery on a custom basis. Then to save time, he put in his own.
The steam boiler 14 feet long, 5 wide, and 5 high, rated at 50 horsepower, is laid up with brick around the boiler, and is coal fired. The condensing tanks 2 x 12 x 4 ½ feet are elevated on a platform, and a maze of pipes run here and there. It is all enclosed in a building. Only the mint wagons stay on the outside, and on the three of these are mounted special built beds that serve as tanks at the distillery.
The growing of mint is more hazardous than many farm crops. Prices vary from year to year, too, and to cash in on good years a grower stays in, and takes his beating on the bad years. If he tried to pick out the good years, he’d be like the hog farmer who became discouraged and quit.
Meeting a friend one day, he said, “I lost a couple of thousand dollars on the hog market last week!”
“How’d you do that?” his friend asked in amazement.
“They went up, and I didn’t have any!”
The Shanks stayed with the mint crop year by year and the price is good this year. Mint is a two-year crop. It starts by digging last year’s roots, breaking them into small pieces by a special machine and planting again with a special two-row planter. Glen says, “At first it doesn’t look like the crop would amount to anything, but it soon comes on wonderfully.”
Once Started, It’s a Two-Year Crop
When the mint is started, the grower has one advantage – it is a two year crop. It can also be started from seed, but the root system seems to work the best.
The crop can be cultivated by tractor until three inches high, then it must be hoed to keep the weeds out, for weeds can ruin the flavor. At cutting time mint will be 30 to 36 inches high, and a beautiful green color. It is cut with a mower and left to cure a day or two, then raked into windrows. A tractor drawn field chopper then goes up and down the rows, picking up, chopping, and blowing the chopped mint into the wagons.
The wagon tanks are practically air tight during the distilling process, for at the “still” they are pulled under a steel lid that fits all three wagons. The heavy lid is lowered by a winch and clamped tight. Each wagon holds about two tons of chopped mint, and when the steam pipes are connected the actual distilling can start.
The steam from the boiler enters the wagon at the bottom of the bed, and escapes into the mint through three vented pipes running length-wise of the tank. As the steam rises through the load it picks up the mint juice, and returns inside the building through an overhead pipe and a coil to the condensing tanks where the steam changes back to water.
The water and mint oil is then drained into a smaller barrel arrangement where the oil, being lighter in weight, rises and the finished product is drained off and stored in steel drums ready for sale. It takes about 90 minutes to distill one load. The “still” uses lots of water – 15 gallons a minute, and is supplied by two three-inch wells.
The mint stems or pummies left in the wagons are dumped in a field, and later, spread and plowed under.
A good mint crop will produce about two loads of chopped mint per acre, and yield 10 gallons of oil. The average yield, however, is much less.
The Shanks original plan for the family has worked out well, as they have seen the children grow up and marry, and the four couples and 14 grandchildren are all on the land.
The ones who wanted to have “bought” into the farm operation. ROBERT (Bob) and wife, own the original 40 acres. GERALD (Bud) and wife, purchased 40 acres from a neighbor and 40 adjoining acres from Glen. Son-in-law, ED RYAN, and daughter JEAN, have 120 acres of the farm, and another daughter, VIRGINIA, and husband, ROGER HARROD, have a site out of the farm and a new house on it. Glen and Velma, 12 years ago, purchased a site a mile away from their farm and built a ranch type house on it.
Bud Shank works full time at Dana Corp, and Bob and Ed Ryan are at the Zollner Corp, 40 hours a week. They all give their extra time to the farm. Glen supervises, does the distilling, and manages to get the work done with the “boys” help and some summer hired help. Besides, Glen has found time to serve as Eel River Township Trustee 8 years, and also on the Allen County School Reorganization Board. But soon he wants the family to take the whole farm operation, as he recently took the real estate test and is now a licensed broker. At present, he is working with Chess, Inc. at Huntertown.
With low farm prices in the last 10 years and high taxes and inflation hitting the farmer from all sides, and remembering all the hard work behind him, Glen, somewhat wistfully, thinks with the same effort he might have done better in some other line of endeavor. Still, having a close-knit family all nearby, instead of possibly scattered, is worth a lot to him and Velma.