23 June 2009

Small Farmers Experi-Mint With Crop Diversification

Story from the Detroit News

As Crosby Mint Farm prepares for its 98th harvest of the fragrant herb, siblings Jim and Linette Crosby, fourth-generation growers, are busy forming business partnerships they hope will keep the family farm operating for many years.

With the cost of farming going up and the price of mint oil increasing only $8 per pound since 1925, Jim Crosby said it was crucial to look for new ways to make the farm -- the oldest mint producing operation in the United States -- profitable. But, when the farm in St. Johns, near Lansing, recently came under the threat of foreclosure, diversification became a matter of survival.

"I had to do it," he said, "because I wanted to keep the farm going."

Right: Double The Fun -- Jim Crosby, right, has partnered with Dr. Eugene Watkins, who owns Pure Herbs Ltd. in Sterling Heights. The firm recently bought 200 gallons of spearmint oil. (Pure Herbs Ltd.)

New products boost business
Crosby, who goes by the nickname "Peppermint," started looking for a mint oil distributor 25 years ago, but couldn't find one who shared his commitment to improving the quality of customers' lives.

So, he diversified the 130-acre farm in other ways, including opening the farm to tourists in 1998 and developing a mint-based cleaner and a mint-based compost, which he began selling in 1997. In the past year, Crosby formed partnerships with a candle company, a candy company and a honey producer that use the mint oil in their products.

Before him, his parents and grandparents sold the mint and oil wholesale to a broker. During the 1940s and 1950s, mint farming was profitable, Crosby said, but markets changed and the price of mint held steady while expenses went up; smaller growers lost contracts because larger farms could do it cheaper. Crosby could see he was going to have to do things differently if he wanted to keep the farm viable.

Jim Crosby said it was crucial to look for new ways to make the farm -- the oldest mint producing operation in the United States -- profitable

His dad died in 2005, and his uncle, who helped maintain the farm, had a stroke a year later, leaving Crosby on his own. He was so busy taking care of the everyday operations that he let the business aspect slip away. Four years ago, he had taken out four loans, but wasn't able to repay them all.

That's when the lender Greenstone Farm Credit Services started the foreclosure process. Shortly after that, all the partnerships Crosby had begun forming crumbled because no one wanted to do business with a farm that wouldn't be around for long.

"We had done a lot, but it goes back to wearing all the hats," he said.

Pete Lemmer, an attorney for Greenstone, said the agency is working with Crosby and they have agreed on a repayment plan.
Interest in mint oil increases

Crosby has since formed new partnerships with candymaker R Candies in Bellevue, Soy-Beam Candle Buffet in Owosso and Frantz Honey in Davison to use the mint oil in their products. Henry Ford Hospital also is buying the oil for medicinal uses, he said.

The partnerships have generated more income for the farm and give the mint oil international exposure, Crosby said. Business is up 125 percent since the partnerships were formed, he said, and customers all over the country and as far away as Europe are interested in buying the oil and mint.

"We're able to offer more products people are asking for or wanting to buy," Crosby said.

R Candies began using Crosby's mint oil in its candies a year ago and it's getting rave reviews from customers.

"My strongest impression is that they love the freshness of the mint," said Ed Baker, whose family operates the company. "It makes a humongous difference."

Pure Herbs Ltd., an herbal manufacturing company in Sterling Heights, just bought its first shipment of 200 gallons of spearmint oil from Crosby Mint Farm last week, fulfilling Crosby's wish 25 years ago to partner with a business that shared his philosophy. Pure Herbs plans to sell the oil to its 6,500 active U.S. distributors.

The company bought the oil after owner Eugene Watkins tried it and loved it, said Al Pfund, production manager. The staff also liked the fact that it was 100 percent natural.

"We were very, very impressed," Pfund said. "We don't want the kind of oil that's made for food or has anything synthetic in it."

Even with all the financial trouble Crosby and his sister have faced during the past couple of years and their ongoing struggle to save the farm, he still believes in what they are doing and vows to continue growing mint and educating the public.

"Every day is a challenge and every day is a test of faith," he said. "It's always easy to walk away, but when you're doing what your heart believes, there are no obstacles."

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