TULELAKE – Scott Seus doesn’t know if peppermint grown in his fields ends up in the queen’s tea cup, but he and buyers of his crop believe his European Union-bound tea meets the royal standard for excellence in a complicated yet rewarding industry.
As attendees filled blue solo cups with iced green tea from a jug on the back of a pickup near his fields, Seus shared about the tea industry, one of the crops he farms in Tulelake, with dozens who attended the Klamath Water Users Association’s Harvest Tour Thursday.
“... God willing, she loves mint tea,” Seus said, of Queen Elizabeth II, England’s longest reigning monarch.
The harvest tour aims to showcase the Basin’s harvest each fall with stops at various operations, which this year also included Wong’s Potatoes Fresh Organic in Merrill, Skyline Brewery, and Gone Fishing, a sucker-rearing facility outside of Klamath Falls.
Most attendees toured the area stops on a bus, with others who brought their own vehicles, including a stop to see Seus’ tea fields.
Tea produced from Seus’ nine peppermint fields are trucked to a processor in central Oregon and then on to Bigelow, Celestial Seasonings and Stash tea, all familiar brands on the supermarket shelf.
Standards for tea are high in the European Union, where the drink is a staple for many, including nursing mothers concerned about the tea’s content, Seus said.
The stakes for tea production for Seus means the crops face multiple factors, including smoke impacts and toxic weeds.
“Primarily we are trying to get into the European market,” Seus said. “The criteria to do that is extremely tough.”
Seus and his family entered the peppermint business in the early 2000s at a time when the European Union was looking for tea with fewer chemicals.
New enough to the industry at the time, Seus said it became known to tea companies that his operation wasn’t using chemicals. There wasn’t a need to with none of the same pest problems, he said.
“All of a sudden we were their salvation,” Seus said. “So, we ended up in tea production that year.”
“There’s been a lot of growing pains through the years,” Seus said, “this is kind of a lot like the horseradish. There is not a lot of people that do this.”
While there are different ways to farm peppermint, Seus explained the process that works best for his farm.
“We do two cuttings a year, one around the Fourth of July, and then our second cutting is now, starts around the 15th of September,” Seus said.
“We’re about two-thirds of the way through our harvest season on the second cut, and this tea was swathed down about six days ago now, so it’s been in the field about six days. We’re depending on air movement … the air’s been pretty stagnant for us down here for the last month, and that’s kind of lengthened our drying times. We have gone as late as the 15th of November trying to get mint out of the field.
“Hopefully what we end up with is just a tank full of (dry) tea that we put it into the semis,” Seus said. “Those semis will transport that product up to a processing plant up in central Oregon that does the process of removing stem from the leaves.”
The tea is then baled into bricks after it’s tested for residue and more than 150 chemical compounds, and shipped to the EU.
Of course the tea can face numerous obstacles before it hits the tea cup, including smoke impacts from wildfire.
However, Seus said the impact from wildfire smoke on this year’s crop was less than in previous years.
“In 2002, we got the tea rejected when it hit the European shores and we couldn’t figure out why,” Seus said.
A lab in Oregon determined the tea was infiltrated by a chemical compound from the Biscuit Fire at the time.
“Pretty high-risk game,” Seus said of the product. “This isn’t for everyone. We’ve gone through a lot of growing pains here.”
Seus called tea production a “highly labor-intensive” product that requires weeding crews who specifically look for weeds toxic to wildlife.
Seus is used to and up for a challenge, though.
Farming horseradish, another of Seus’ niche crops, isn’t exactly an easy-to-farm crop, either.
Seus is one of fewer than 20 horseradish growers remaining in the U.S., in an industry that he said once had about 65 growers.
He said the family owns and operates a machine shop in Tulelake where they can manufacture harvesters for horseradish and mint, due to the complexities of the crops.
“Things are getting harder and harder,” Seus said.
“The same time, the companies are coming to us because they know the product history here, they know what we can do with it, they know that it’s a quality product, they know that the testing is going to be good.”
An attendee on the tour asked Seus, “Is there anything you guys don’t do?”
Seus said, “We don’t do potatoes, and I’m not saying anything bad about potatoes.
“Potatoes is a pretty tough market,” Seus added. “There’s farms that do it really well, and kudos to them for being survivors.”
What keeps Seus farming peppermint and horseradish?
Seus answered simply,“The crops that I’m raising I enjoy.”