MERIDIAN — After leaving his family’s Meridian farm to attend the University of Idaho, mint brought fourth-generation Idaho farmer Drew Eggers back home.
“Mint was really intriguing to me,” Eggers said. “It has expanded, but there were not a lot of acres at that time.”
Eggers’ father is considered one of Idaho’s first mint farmers, planting his first crops in the late 1960s, but the family’s influence on western Ada County stretches back further. Eggers’ family started farming in the Meridian area starting in the 1910s, and his grandfather helped give Black Cat Road its name. Though the Eggers legacy includes dairy, feed crops and prunes, Drew Eggers is considered, as longtime friend and fellow farmer Steve Woodard said, “an ambassador for mint.”
In 1978, Drew Eggers began farming mint, sharecropping 80 acres with his father. Drew Eggers’ mint business expanded from there, eventually growing over 1,000 acres five years ago.
But this fall, Eggers will finish his last season, harvesting his last crop of mint before retiring.
MINT TO BE
The Eggers farming legacy started with Drew’s great-grandfather, who moved to Idaho in 1918 and owned a dairy on Ten Mile and Overland roads. His son and Eggers’ grandfather, Chester Eggers Sr., opened a dairy farm and prune growing business in 1921 on Franklin Road in west Meridian — it was called Black Cat Farm.
Chester Eggers Sr. had a big sign with a black cat made and put it on the corner of Franklin and Black Cat roads. At the time, Black Cat Road was known as Post Road, but years later Ada County renamed the road. Drew Eggers’ mint fields are just south of the sign. His family doesn’t own the ranch anymore, but he uses the black cat logo on all of his farm machinery.
After graduating from University of Idaho 1975, Eggers took a position at an irrigation district in Homedale. Eggers said he would drive around for the job and see farmers harvesting their crops.
“I wanted to stop and go help them,” Eggers said. “I just thought ‘Man, I’m either going to have to get away from farmers doing their job or I’m just going to have to quit (my engineering job) and go back to the farm.’”
The urge was so strong that Eggers decided to join his father, Chester Eggers Jr., in farming after two years at the district. Growing up, Drew Eggers had helped his father grow feed crops. Chester Eggers Jr. was first introduced to mint in 1968 when a neighbor who “told my dad maybe we ought to try it on our side of the fence,” Drew Eggers said.
“That’s the reason I came back to the farm,” he said. “If he hadn’t gotten into mint, I wouldn’t have come back to the farm. I wasn’t interested in raising the rotation of the feed crops.”
Eggers was fairly early to Idaho mint, which began to be grown in Idaho in the 1960s, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
“Drew has always been an ambassador for mint,” said Woodard. Woodard grows up to 500 acres of mint a year. This year, 160 of the 1,325 acres that he planted were mint — he grows mostly sugar beets, sweet corn and fresh onions on the remainder of the acreage.
Eggers introduced Woodard to mint, and the design of Eggers’ still inspired Woodard’s. Eggers, like Woodard, also grows other crops like beans and corn, but mint is different.
“It’s just more enjoyable,” Eggers said. “I like the whole process. It’s kind of a niche crop where there’s not many farmers doing it even now.”
Eggers distills his spearmint and peppermint into oil, which he sells to gum and toothpaste companies, including Colgate. In preparation for his retirement, Eggers sold his mint still to another farmer and is having Woodard distill his mint in Woodard’s still. The distilling process started on Monday, after the spearmint was harvested, and will last for several days. Woodard said the peppermint will be harvested and distilled in August.
“We bring the plant into the still and run steam through the leaves and distill the oil out of the leaf,” Eggers said. “Then the oil floats to the top.”
The oil is then put in drums that can be shipped to manufacturers. Eggers said mint can’t be created in a lab, so companies have to rely on natural mint oil.
Idaho is the third largest producer of mint in the nation, according to the Idaho State Department of Agriculture website. There are more than 17,000 acres of Idaho mint that are sold on the national and global market.
“(Mint) likes ... the Idaho weather — the cool nights and warm summer days,” Eggers said. “It grows real well here.”
Mint is a perennial plant that lasts three to five years before it has to be replanted, Eggers said. Mint is susceptible to Verticillium Wilt, a fungal disease that stays in the soil for 30 to 40 years, he said. In order to avoid planting new mint in soil with the disease, Eggers rents out new ground to grow in after a couple rotations of mint.
Five years ago, Eggers planted his last batch of mint, knowing all the ground he owned and rented was “minted out.”
While neither of his daughters are continuing the occupation, Eggers said he’s excited for the next generation of farmers — some of which he is mentoring as he prepares for retirement.
“(Drew) has always been passionate for mint,” Woodard said. “The industry is losing a great advocate and ambassador.”