WOOSTER, Ohio – Only a few months after beginning sales, Dante Tropea and Joe Miller’s fledgling business is already worth a mint.
Their Mint Brook Meadows Peppermint and Spearmint Herbal Tea hit shelves for the first time in local bulk and specialty food stores this April, and business has gone well enough for them to upgrade equipment and talk seriously about expansion.
This year they have harvested 1,000 pounds of peppermint and spearmint on Tropea’s farm near Dalton, Ohio, and next year they expect to be able to yield up to 6,000 pounds with the right weather conditions.
Straight from the farm. Their process of turning mint to tea is remarkably well contained: Tropea harvests the mint and manages the marketing aspect and Miller handles the packaging, so the mint leaves the 160-acre farm as tea in boxes and goes straight to the stores.
The methods that bring the mint from the soil to the teabags are natural, unique, and practical. The mint is planted from rootstock, a four-person operation that takes three hours per acre – not bad, considering that they only have to plant about six acres in all.
Both peppermint and spearmint do well in wet soil. While Tropea grows the spearmint in fertile, organic bottom soil, he and Miller predict some of the mint they grow may be irrigated in the future.
Leaves air dried. Peppermint and spearmint is harvested with a four-foot sickle bar and taken from the fields by wagon. In order to keep the product natural, the wooden wagons are treated with only linseed oil.
In fact, for “anything that touches [the mint] or even comes close,” including some machine bearings, linseed oil is used in place of anything that could affect the taste or quality of the tea.
Part of what makes Tropea and Miller’s tea unique is their air drying process – Tropea believes Mint Brook Meadows is the only commercial operation in America to air dry its tea.
They are currently upgrading their air drying facilities to be able to dry more tea at once.
Tropea says air drying the mint preserves flavor that can be lost in the usual sun or freeze drying methods.
The packaging operation will soon be moved to Miller’s farm.
Miller, who also works as a roofer, joined with Tropea when Mint Brook Meadows co-founder Laverne Martin left the project.
Quality control. By bagging and boxing the tea themselves, they cut packaging costs and can personally make sure that the tea looks satisfactory on store shelves. As Tropea points out, “the first time, you’re actually selling them the box – it’s taste after that.”
The tea that they currently produce is caffeine-free herbal tea with no actual tea leaves in it, but they plan to combine their peppermint with green tea leaves from Africa and their spearmint with black tea from Sri Lanka and China to produce two new varieties of tea.
They believe that these two teas will be high quality because they plan to purchase high-grade tea leaves and, as Tropea points out, “no one else can blend tea with their own grown mint.”
Diversification. Mint Brook Meadow’s peppermint and spearmint tea is appearing in a growing number of stores, but it was not much more than a year ago that Tropea and his wife, Twila, were still trying to figure out what to grow to supplement their dairy farm’s income.
They considered grapes, among other possibilities, but eventually settled on mint, inspired partly by the wild variety that grows on their farm.
One of the strengths of Tropea and Miller’s product is that the market for their tea is more constant than the produce market and, unlike the dairy portion of the farm’s income, there is no cap in sight for what income the tea could bring.
“Right now we’re dairy farmers who grow tea. We’d like to say we’re tea farmers who have some dairy cows