KENNEWICK (AP) — Washington produces enough mint oil each year to supply every American resident with 135 sticks of gum.
Columbia Basin farmers fill 55-gallon drums with the oil they steam out of the green leaves of the mint plant, which looks similar to alfalfa hay.
Just one of those drums can flavor 5 million sticks of gum, said Rod Christensen, executive director of the Kennewick-based Washington Mint Commission.
“It doesn’t take much to do a lot of flavoring,” he said.
For example, there is about a drop of mint in a tube of toothpaste, he said.
Washington is the leading producer of mint oil nationwide. Washington farmers produce the most spearmint oil and the second-most peppermint oil, with about 17,000 acres of spearmint and 16,000 acres of peppermint, Christensen said.
Together, that produces about 3.5 million pounds of mint oil annually, valued at about $80 million.
Washington is the largest mint-producing area in the world when it comes to spearmint and peppermint, Christensen said.
Most of the 150 mint growers in the state are in Adams, Grant and Yakima counties, Christensen said.
Mint is an irrigated crop in the Columbia Basin and requires quite a bit of water, he said.One of Washington’s major advantages is having the “best quality in the world,” Christensen said. And the state is competitive in price.
The mint plant, called mint hay, is harvested and goes into a mint still — a steam distillation plant on the farm in which mint hay is cooked with steam. Christensen said the steam takes oil out of the leaves and condenses it to liquid. The oil, lighter than water, goes to the top and is skimmed off.
It then is poured into 55-gallon drums that the farmer sells to the dealer, he said.
Mint dealer Labbeemint buys about 80 percent of its mint oil from growers who it contracts with, said Craig St. Hilaire, sales manager for Labbeemint near Harrah, a western Yakima Valley town. That includes farmers from the Yakima growing region.
Labbeemint processes mint oil all year, St. Hilaire said. It has 45 employees, including at its main facility in Harrah and other offices in the nation.
Labbeemint analyzes the mint oil for about 25 major components. “Our customers have analytic specifications that we have to match,” St. Hilaire said.
The retailer will make the oil into a finished flavor, he said.
Most of Labbeemint’s customers are oral care companies such as toothpaste makers and confectioneries such as chewing gum firms, St. Hilaire said.