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On Site: Shady Lane Farms

By: Dave Brambert, publisher
Posted: January 5, 2009

page 2 of 3

Currently, Matthys farms about 4,000 acres of land, with 600 dedicated to mint and the rest to corn. Corn’s status as a cash crop has skyrocketed in recent years because of ethanol production, and Matthys lives only five miles from New Energy Corp.’s South Bend plant, which he happily supplies with all of his 3,400 acres of corn.

But mint is the story of Shady Lane Farms. The mint crop is ready to harvest when small flowers appear, which in Northern Indiana usually occurs in August. In the first step a swather cuts the mint plants a few inches above ground level. They will continue to grow thereafter and in some cases Matthys can get a second cutting in one year.

The swather cuts the mint not unlike a giant barber’s clippers with a set of reciprocating teeth. The cut plants move back onto two sets of rollers that drive the cut plants into the middle of the swathed row, where they will sit from one to three days to dry out. A tractor then pulls a harvester and wagons (built by Matthys) over the “hay” to pick up the crop, which is then tossed into the wagons. Once loaded, a truck brings the wagons back to the still. In addition to his own contiguous acreage, Matthys farms a large parcel several miles away where he rotates spearmint, peppermint and corn.

Once the wagons are at the still, they are connected to a source steam line at the bottom, where a series of perforated pipes allow the steam to work its way up through seven to eight tons of chopped mint. A door with a collecting pipe is placed over the rectangular hole near the top of the wagon. This collecting pipe captures the steam infused with oil vapor that is released by the oil glands on the underside of the mint leaves.

The oil/steam mix is piped to a condenser and the water and oil are brought together down to the receiving tanks. Once in the receiving tanks, the oil is separated and crystal-clear raw peppermint oil is drawn off the top of the tanks. At Shady Lane Farms’ still, six wagons can be hooked up to the still at the same time, feeding six receiving tanks.

“For that seven or eight tons of hay, you get about 40 lbs of oil,” notes Matthys. The price of peppermint oil has varied considerably, from as low as $8–10/lb to more than $30/lb during Matthys’ time running the farm, so one begins to appreciate the importance of market pricing. In addition, the heating oil Matthys uses in his boilers to produce steam has gone from below $1/g in 2003 to $3.80/g this year, making profits tougher to produce. His 1,300-ft irrigation system feeds thirsty corn and mint crops at a rate of 1,700 g/min, and adds to the overhead.