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If all of the mint oil grown in Washington in 2011 was used to flavor toothpaste, it would make over 3.5 billion tubes!   Washington leads the nation in the production of mint oil.  Our growers produce about 3. 5 million pounds a year on 28,000 acres in the Yakima Valley and the Columbia Basin.  Of all the mint oil produced, approximately 55% is used to flavor toothpaste, 30% goes into gum, 10% in candy and 5% in pharmaceuticals and other uses including soap and shampoo.  One acre of mint will produce about 150 lbs. (about 19 gallons) of mint oil. One pound of mint oil (about a pint) will flavor 12,500 sticks of chewing gum, 1000 tubes of toothpaste and 50,000 mint candies.

Growing Mint

Mint is a perennial plant that produces no seed.  New fields are planted with root stock from existing plants.  Every three to five years, the mint fields are plowed under rotated with another field crop and then the mint planting cycle begins again.  The mint plant looks similar to alfalfa hay in the field. 

The mint plant is highly sensitive to soil and climate conditions.   Mint oil’s flavor varies by growing  region.  Manufacturers often require mint from a specific region to get the flavor they want.  

Washington has a reputation for superior quality. About 50% of Washington mint production is exported to countries all over the world. 

The plant reacts to sun and day length, by producing more oil; thus very long sunny days will produce a higher yield crop.  The mint oil is produced in glands on the underside of the plants leaves.  Washington mint growers produce twice as much per acre as mint growers in other parts of the country.

Mint is one of the more difficult plants to grow because of its susceptibility to disease, insects, and weeds, all of which can harm the plant, alter the quality of the oil and reduce the yield.  Weed control is especially important because weeds affect the flavor of the oil and can make it unusable.

History and Uses of Mint

The early Romans believed eating mint would increase intelligence.  Senators and royal ambassadors often carried sprigs of mint springs in their pockets to increase their oratory skills and prevent them from losing their temper.   More recently, research has shown that sniffing mint improves concentration. 

Peppermint is one of the oldest and best tasting home remedies for indigestion.  Studies show that peppermint lessens the amount of time food spends in the stomach by stimulating the gastric lining to produce enzymes which aid digestion. Today, mint is still used to aid digestion (yes, after dinner mints are good for you!)

Mint oil is one of the few remaining all-natural flavorings.  The nuances of flavor that are found in natural mint have so far defied attempts to develop a commercially-viable artificial flavoring.

During World War II, peppermint and spearmint were placed on a list as an “essential war crop” and the War Manpower Commission termed it as part of medicinal and flavoring agriculture necessary for the war effort and recommended draft deferments for mint growers.

Harvesting Mint

If you drive through the Yakima Valley or the Columbia Basin between the Fourth of July and the end of September, you may smell mint in the air.  That means someone is harvesting spearmint or peppermint oil nearby. First, the mint is cut and left to dry in the field like hay. Then it is loaded into specialize wagons with a grid of perforated pipes on the bottom. The wagons are towed to a nearby mint still where steam is hooked up to the pipe grid. The steam vaporizes the mint oil from the leaves. This mixture of steam and mint oil is piped to a condenser where it is condensed back to liquid.  The mixture then goes into a separator where the oil, which is lighter than water, floats to the top and is skimmed off into 55 gallon drums.  One 55 gallon drum of mint oil weighs about 400 pounds.

Thanks to the Washington Mint Commission and the Mint Industry Research Council for providing information.  http://usmintindustry.org