Wisconsin is certainly known for its beer and cheese, its cranberry marshes and cherry orchards – but mint? Sullivan producer Tom Anfang says it still surprises his fellow Wisconsinites to learn that their state is a global leader in mint production.
According to the Wisconsin mint industry, the United States is responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s supply of mint – and Wisconsin ranks fifth in the nation for production of mint oils. Most Midwestern mint oil goes to companies such as Colgate and Wrigley’s, which means when you chew gum or brush your teeth, there’s a very good chance you’ve tasted Wisconsin mint.
“I get that all the time. Ninety percent of them say, ‘Wow, mint, I never realized,’” says Anfang, who pulled his first weeds on a Delavan mint farm at the age of 12 and never stopped. Raised as one of 11 children on an 80-acre family farm, he bought his first 40 acres while he was still in high school. Although he’s dabbled throughout the years in sweet corn, peas, potatoes and beef cattle, the constant has always been mint. He now farms about 1,500 acres worth of the thirsty, aromatic perennial across parcels from Janesville to Sullivan. “Mint was always different, that’s probably what I like about it,” he says. “And it brings a little diversity to Wisconsin’s agriculture.”
How Mint is Grown
Mint, specifically peppermint and spearmint, starts as a row crop but does not produce seeds. It’s propagated by the root and favors rich, wet muck – sometimes up to 65 percent organic material. While 90 percent of commercially grown mint is distilled to a concentrated oil used for confectionary and pharmaceutical flavoring – one drum of oil can be used to flavor 5 million sticks of chewing gum or 400,000 tubes of toothpaste – it is also a refreshing herb used in cooking and drinks, and believed to have digestive and antiviral properties. With only about 80,000 acres cultivated in the U.S. each year, mint is still a small player in the grand agricultural scheme, but those who farm it, love it.
“More of my neighbors appreciate me when we’re harvesting mint,” laughs Richard Gumz, a fourth-generation mint farmer in central Wisconsin and one of only three 2017 Top Producer of the Year finalists in the nation, according to Top Producer magazine.
The Gumz family began growing mint in Wisconsin 70 years ago on land the government deemed too wet for farming or developing. Modern irrigation practices have since made more land amenable to mint. Mint also needs rotation every five or six years to ward off a disease called verticillium wilt. Gumz Farms raises onions, red potatoes, carrots, corn and soybeans along with its 900 acres of peppermint and 300 acres of Scotch spearmint.
After cutting the 3-foot-tall leafy plants and letting them dry in the field, they chop mint into fully enclosed wagons and inject it with steam. A two-hour distillation process extracts the oil and condenses the vapor. Wisconsin’s state average yield is about 50 to 60 pounds of oil per acre – highly potent, highly concentrated and high in demand.
“I like growing mint because it’s a specialty crop that ends up in products we’re all familiar with that we all enjoy,” Gumz says. “It smells good, it’s unique and it adds to our diversification because we’re harvesting in July and August when we’re not harvesting other crops as heavily.”