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Mini mint still is ready for research

Don Kirby, left, principal superintendent of agriculture with the Intermountain Research Center in Tulelake, places mint in one of the cooker pots during a demonstration test of the mini still last week at Three M Mint Inc. on Stateline Road. Helping out, left to right are Tim Day, John Cheatham and Lee McKoen Jr. Day and Cheatham are with Juniper Manufacturing in Redmond, Ore.

Published September 1, 2004

New equipment will allow Basin growers to test in the field


Friday morning, Lee McKoen Jr., Rodney Todd and other local agriculture notables hung around the Three M Mint Inc. Merrill distillery as the smell of this year's mint harvest permeated everything in the building - including the coffee.

"We stay minty fresh all day long," joked Todd, the Klamath County extension agent for forages, cereal crops, and natural resources.

The farmers were waiting for a brand new mini still from Redmond, Ore. that will be used in researching Klamath Basin mint crops.

The $40,000 piece of equipment was purchased with funding from the Klamath Basin Agriculture Enhancement Endowment, overseen by Oregon State University, after local mint growers applied.

Continued maintenance and operating costs will be covered by the University of California, and Basin growers will cover some of the start-up and research costs.

"This is an unusually good example of cooperation between the OSU, U.C. and the Basin growers," said Harry Carlson, Intermountain Research and Extension Center experiment station supervisor in Modoc and Siskiyou County. "We're pretty enthusiastic."

The mini still can process about 30 gallons of mint in each of its six cooker pots, while the big still deals with 18-foot trailer cookers holding between 70 and 120 pounds of mint.

The dramatic difference in size also decreases the time involved in the whole process - another reason the mini still is so attractive for research.

"Run time is about 20 to 45 minutes from cook to oil," said John Cheatham, of the Juniper Manufacturing team who built the still. He added that the mini still was probably one of the biggest of its kind in the country.

A third reason the small still is an effective way to test is the amount of fuel it burns.

The mini still will use about two to three gallons of propane an hour, while the full size still eats 20 to 30 gallons of diesel, making the mini still far more cost effective.

The still was made from FDA-grade stainless steel and glass and can be used to test any other crop as needed, but for the most part it will be used for mint and will stay in the Klamath Basin.

Peppermint has been commercially grown in the Basin for four seasons and McKoen estimated the five growers own a collective 2,500 acres here.

With the industry growing, farmers are feeling pressure to improve and have the stats to prove the quality of the oil they send out. They hope this test still will help give them that edge.

"We're trying to stay competitive by doing this research so there are no surprises about quality," Todd said. "Research has been done all over the country but we have a unique environment."

Carlson said the local farmers have been using techniques and practices from the mint farmers in the Columbia Basin and added that one of the biggest differences in the Klamath Basin is the disparity between the really warm days and really cold nights.

"We need to tailor our practices to take full advantage of our area," he said. "We need to make sure the way we manage our crop is producing the best quality and we need to adopt practices that will guarantee high-quality produce."

Tim Day, production engineer with Juniper Manufacturing, installs Thacker design separator cans on the mini still at Three M Mint Inc. last week.

Among the tests Carlson and Todd discussed were irrigation scheduling, cutting scheduling, pesticide management, stress tests and fertilizer scheduling.

Some of the growers have already started to tailor some of these practices on their own.

Todd noted some of the producers had said the mint produced more when it was stressed a little. The growers have also changed harvest dates since they started.

"When we first started we were going through September, but found that an earlier harvest date is better." Todd said.

However, the growers and extension agents are interested in finding out exact times and increments to avoid guess work and the negative outcome of trial-and-error experiments.

One of the more risky tests Carlson is looking at experimenting with is a two-cut system, which he said will be done on a test plot.

"That's the kind of test that could cost a grower a lot of money," he said. "Some of our experiments are going to be complicated and would be extremely hard to do at a grower's field, so those will have to be done at the (experiment) station."

The complex experiments Carlson spoke of involve a lot of manipulation and can be altered by many factors. Other tests he expects to run at the station are fertilizer rate and irrigation schedule tests.

Simpler experiments, like weed control, can be conducted in the grower's field because results can be found without yield tests.

These tests will be cost effective and can utilize the portable feature of the mini still.

While the tests will start on small plots or sections of a grower's field Carlson hopes the positive results will eventually be practiced on a larger scale.

"Once we figure out improved practices we'd like to have growers adopt it," he said.

Carlson explained that California and Oregon were leaders in agriculture techniques because the high rate of results from testing grounds adopted into commercial production.

"This will happen quickly here because the growers are involved from day one. So growers may start adopting things even before the university is ready to recommend it."

Friday afternoon the group of producers, extension agents and manufacturers were setting up the still and doing the first tests to measure it against the big machine.

"The mini still results can be different than a regular tub so we're finding a base line to measure from," McKoen said.

Once the machine's yields are calibrated and other important baseline figures known, it will go down to the University of California to conduct the test plot experiments.

Carlson expects the research program will be very active for about five years and will probably last as long as the industry lasts.

"The amazing thing is with all this science it still comes down to taste and smell," Carlson said.


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