Mint farmer finds way to stay competitive while at WSUV

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 
photoSeely Family Farm products include peppermint and spearmint candy canes, peppermint bark and peppermint patties.

(/The Columbian)

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Seely Family Farm

Owners: Mike and Candy Seely.

What: Mint growers.

Where: Clatskanie, Ore.

On the Web: Seely Family Farm.

Clark County connection: Mike Seely is a third-generation farmer from Clark County, who turned to Washington State University Vancouver to stay competitive.

Three decades after planting his first mint field, former Clark County farmer Mike Seely has found a new way to sell his homegrown mint oil and grab market share from his foreign competitors.

His farm-made candies and teas are catching on with customers of upscale organic grocery chains, such as New Seasons Market and Whole Foods, said Seely, 52, whose operation has almost recovered from the 55 percent drop in business it suffered in the late 1990s. That’s when cheaper mint oil produced in India and China — and synthetically produced oil — started flooding the market. Seely and other regional farms lost high-profile mint oil buyers such as toothpaste maker Colgate-Palmolive and chewing gum maker Wrigley’s.

He came up with his new business plan while pursuing his master’s in business administration degree from Washington State University Vancouver. He earned the MBA degree in 2009.

“I realized we had to focus on our quality in a niche market,” said Seely, who grew up helping his grandfather and his father grow mint in north Clark County’s Fargher Lake area.

Seely’s current mint farm, launched in 1980, is in Clatskanie, Ore.

The family business is co-owned by his wife Candy and their four children, Caryn, 20, Warren, 18, Robyn, 17 and Alayna, 15.

The Seelys mapped out a market for their peppermint products and received help from Joe Cote, a marketing professor at WSUV.

Cote helped the Seelys put together an accounting plan and a marketing strategy.

“He helped us modify our font to convey the message that we are a very high-quality product,” Seely said. “And that it’s coming from our farm.”

Such products are growing increasingly rare these days, Seely said. He estimated the once-thriving mint industry supported about 150 growers from Longview to Salem, Ore., in the years prior to 1997. Now, Seely estimates about 20 mint farms are surviving in the region.

In northern Clark County, the cool aroma of mint being harvested and distilled no longer spices the air in August. Seely’s father, the late Warren Seely, sold his farm to blueberry growers in 1987. Other mint farms from Fargher Lake are also gone.

Seely said he uses the same family farming practices to grow, harvest and convert the tall, perennial mint plants into peppermint oil that can be used for everything from flavoring candy and tea to clearing nasal passages.

“What we do now is similar to the way I grew up,” he said.

Seely’s grandparents, Roy and Nettie Seely, planted their first mint crop just after World War II.

Mike and Candy Seely sell their minty products through 91 merchants in stores from California to Seattle, and as far east as Boise, Idaho.

“Everybody gets addicted to our peppermint patties,” Seely said. “Our plan is five years from now to have people enjoying our products all across the U.S. and possibly in Canada.”