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Mint condition

August 15, 2018
In The News

Mike Seely stands amid a row of steaming tanks as he waits for the next truckload to arrive from the field.

It's mid-day in August. Sweat forms on his forehead and a gray baseball cap is the only thing keeping the sun from beating down on his face.

Today, Seely is hosting Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and a few staffers from her Oregon and Washington, D.C., offices at his mint farm in Clatskanie. Tomorrow, he'll have film crews at the farm recording scenes for an upcoming Discovery Channel show.

They comment on the drive in to the farm — a long gravel road with few signs or road markers.

"Ignore GPS," Seely tells visitors before they make the trip out.

Seely juggles the hissing tanks, checking gauges and jotting down notes in a spiral notebook while explaining how he and a handful of farm workers bring in truckloads of spearmint and peppermint, then steam and refine it into oil.

Over the past decade, the Seely Mint brand has grown from high-quality oil and specialty sweets found primarily in the Pacific Northwest, to coveted peppermint patties, candy canes, and chocolate mint meltaways exported within major grocery chains throughout the U.S. and Canada.

This year also marked the first that Seely Mint products were exported to China.

Seely Mint garnered attention a few years ago when the products were listed on Oprah's Favorite Things, right around the same time the brand struck a deal with Whole Foods.

"We are now in all Whole Foods stores," Seely says. Seely mint products are also now on the shelves of New Seasons markets, Market Fresh in St. Helens, Alberta Co-op and — soon — Kroger stores, including Fred Meyer.

Demand for increased product distribution has kept Seely, 59, and his employees busy. Sometimes too busy.

Today is no different. The Seely Mint farm staff are playing catch-up after a spate of summer rain a few days prior that was just enough to shut down operations for a day.

He's had trouble finding enough people to work the farm and production operations.

"It's a problem that every business I talk to has," he says. "It's a lot of work. It's physical work."

Luckily, Seely Mint was recently awarded a $250,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help the company ramp up hiring in preparation for the newest product launch — mint tea.

Bonamici, who helped secure the grant, visited the mint farm Tuesday, Aug. 14, to meet with Seely and make the announcement to regional press.

"I was honored to write that support letter to the USDA," Bonamici said of her efforts to help Seely Mint secure the grant. "There's a lot of demand for real, high-quality products."

Family farm

Seely is a third-generation mint farmer. Both his father and grandfather harvested mint.

"My dad farmed before he went to the University of Washington and studied engineering," Seely notes. "And then World War II called and he never went back to college. He started raising mint right after the war."

Seely followed in his father's footsteps, studying electrical engineering before returning his focus to farming. Today, his wife, Candy, and son, Warren, both play key roles on the

farm.

Despite a heavy shift in the mint industry, not much has changed at the rural Oregon farm.

Seely remains staunchly anti-GMO and insists his farm is one of the last bastions of "real" mint oil. He laments the introduction of synthetic flavorings, menthol crystals and overseas ingredients in everything from chewing gum to toothpaste, amounting to a flavor profile he calls the equivalent of "Vicks VapoRub."

Several times during the farm visit he broke off conversation to take care of operations.

"OK!" he yells to a dump truck driver, signaling the driver to pull out, with another truck arriving in the slot a minute later.

Across the lot, in a small portable building, the farm owner guides visitors to a back room where three women hover over conveyor belts and mixing machines, carving away at large blocks of solid fondant.

The temperature outside is creeping into the 90s, but inside the heavily chilled portable, sheets of uncoated patties cool on racks, waiting to be doused in chocolate. The scent of peppermint is thick in the air.

Seely may be an expert at sugar confections, but he doesn't sugarcoat farm life for the congresswoman. He lets on about some of the setbacks he's had, such as repeated non-payment from a distributor he uses, new Canadian import tariffs and health insurance — he doesn't have any.

Still, the uncontrollable variables, hard labor and increased pressure on the agriculture industry aren't enough to make him shut down the machines just yet.

"If you told me 15 years ago that I'd be selling chocolates and tea and oil across the world, I would've said, 'You know, I think you're smoking something'," Seely says, laughing. "Now I look back and it's kinda really cool."

A while back, at an industry trade show, Seely was browsing vendor booths with his wife. After making small talk with a woman from a Canadian company, she asked who he was.

"I started to say, we make these dark chocolate mint patties," Seely recalls. "Her eyes got big and she screamed and hugged me and said, 'I love those things!' She'd been buying them at the British Columbia Whole Foods. We get why we're doing what we're doing. It makes it fun."