Growers and distillers of Oregon’s troubled peppermint industry hope that a not-so-new invention will help increase their crop’s international competitiveness. Researchers are looking at how the humble microwave could be adapted to revolutionize the state’s mint oil production process and greatly reduce the industry’s operating costs.
Currently, mint oil is extracted through a high-cost steaming process involving large boilers that run on expensive fuel. Rocky Lundy, executive director of the Mint Industry Research Council, says the combination of cheap foreign products from China and India along with uncertain fuel prices has hurt the state’s competitiveness over the last 12 years.
Bryan Ostlund of the Oregon Mint Commission says Oregon produces 25% of the nation’s mint oil, roughly 2.5 million pounds, with an annual value of $50 million. Lundy says planted acreage of the crop in Oregon will increase 3% to 5% by 2010. Currently the state grows about 28,000 acres. But with a global appetite for the cheapest goods, experts say the state’s industry must find a way to cut production costs in order to survive.
Lundy says the current steam distillation system can account for 60% of the total production cost. “The idea of trying to find some more efficient form of distilling the oil has been around for years,” says Lundy.
That Holy Grail of mint oil distillation may be on the way, says Lundy. With help this summer from Oregon State University researcher David Hackleman, mint producers rented an industrial microwave unit, designed for textile production and drying dog food, and used it to distill the oil from batches of mint hay instead of using costly boilers. Lundy says the samples of the oil produced in the initial experiments easily met the quality standards expected of Oregon mint. However, further research will be conducted in North Carolina on the true energy efficiencies of the process.
John Wendel, general manager of Albany-based RCB International, which buys mint from growers and sells to customers like Colgate, says over the past 10 years there has been pressure from large retailers such as Wal-Mart for cheaper products. The result has benefited overseas producers who have gained a strong foothold in the industry with Mentha arvensis, a lower-cost peppermint alternative blended with other oils. The alternative blend has chipped away at traditional mint production and Oregon’s share of the market, says Wendel.
“Arvensis affected us negatively,” says mint grower Jim Cloud of Madras. “On the other hand, I can’t blame [the customers] really.”
But if the research on the microwave system proves positive, Lundy says within five years the new process could give Oregon its edge back. “Last year, I would’ve said [Oregon mint] had an uphill battle,” Lundy says. “Now that hill is not so steep.”