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The average person probably wouldn’t know it, but there is an abundance of flavor and fragrance history tucked between South Bend and Crumstown, IN, at Shady Lane Farms, now run by third-generation mint farmer Randy Matthys.
“My grandfather bought this farm in the 1930s,” says Matthys, “and there was already an old mint still on the property, so who knows when mint growing started on this piece of land.” In fact, Matthys is in the same general area where mint farming took root in the late 1840s, mainly in the Southern Michigan mucklands (and in fact today you still hear the term “muck farm”) and in Northern Indiana, primarily St. Joseph County. These lands are particularly apt for mint farming, the muck being the end result of plant deposition in standing water in the post-glacial period.
Many American peppermint plants trace their heritage to 18th C. England—specifically, Mitcham in County Surrey (which is also why many of the fields are full of what is called “Mitcham” or “Black Mitcham” peppermint). Peppermint’s long and little-changed pedigree is one of the two things Matthys doesn’t like about the mint business: “Look at that field and you’ll see a plant that hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. And if you look at the corn behind it, how many thousands of different hybrids and versions are there? It seems like we haven’t put a lot of scientific work into getting the best mint crop possible.”
Progress has been made at various universities and by pioneering mint industry chemist and eponymous founder of A.M. Todd in Kalamazoo, MI. (Stay tuned to the next edition of P&Fnow for more on A.M. Todd.) In fact, there is a “Todd Mitcham” variety that has popularity among mint farmers and can be seen growing on Shady Lane acreage. A few universities have performed valuable research through the years. But because of mint’s lack of status as a staple food, Matthys’ comparison is a fair one.
Matthys’ other nettle is the pricing in the industry, which seems to follow neither the classic supply and demand rules nor Adam Smith’s “invisible hand-of-the-market” theory. “You can’t have demand go way up and expect to pay the same thing in any other business,” he states. He also notes that when mint oil prices rise as they did a decade ago, “… you’ll see a lot of new mint growers, or farmers who come into and out of the business based on last year’s pricing. Inevitably, prices recede and the new entrants change to another crop.”
But Shady Lane Farms is otherwise a source of happiness for Matthys, his sons and his father Bud. “There is absolutely nothing like standing out in a mint field on a summer day when it’s 80 degrees and a bit of a breeze with a blue sky overhead,” he says. Indeed, arriving at the farm one is taken with the clean fresh smell of peppermint and spearmint, also grown at Shady Lane. Want a taste? Pull off a leaf and chew.