Photo by Lisa Renze-Rhodes
Dirt deeply embedded into the swirls and callouses on Larry Wappel Sr.’s palms could almost be mistaken for tattoos. The seemingly permanent coloring is the result of a lifetime spent working with his hands on a farm that started with his father and will one day end up with his sons.
Keeping the land alive long enough for it to become trigenerational is as much a choice for Wappel as blinking would be. It’s why the more than 9,000-acre operation is robustly diverse, mindful of ever-changing markets and a critical need for self-sufficiency. Corn stalks wave in the wind within view of solar panels that help power the farm. Flowers planted at the base of those panels attract pollinators that fertilize the cucumber plants.
And in several fields sit crops Wappel can hardly smell anymore. The plants rise to Wappel’s knees, their tiny white flower buds telling him all he needs to know—it’s mint harvesting time.
“I used to be able to smell it the way other people do,” Wappel says, as he walks a few feet into a field, reaches down and rubs his thumb across the back of some leaves, opening the oil pores and releasing a scent so strong it’s almost visible.
“Now if I get right on top of it, I can smell it.”
Wappel, his wife Debbie and sons Larry Jr. and Eric, along with a few other full-time farm hands, are part of a small, specialty group of mint producers in only six states who provide product that eventually finds its way into everything from Colgate toothpaste to Nestle foods.
In northwest Indiana, where the family farms, harvesting starts on their 1,200 acres of mint in mid-July and continues to mid-September. In all, Indiana growers harvested just slightly more than 10,000 acres of mint last year, according to the USDA.
It’s hard work that during the harvest keeps the team running until around 1 or 2 a.m., stopping down for a few hours’ sleep, then starting all over again.
“We don’t run 24 hours,” Wappel says quickly, though the unspoken remainder of that statement is that at the height of the season, it most assuredly feels like they do.
As he watches a red storm blob move across a radar app on his phone, Wappel explains how the harvesting works. It starts, not surprisingly, with the weather.
“We’ve got to be very careful when we cut it, ”Wappel says. The mint hay, as it’s called, has to dry naturally, at least for a day and sometimes two in the sun. Wet weather can cause the hay to rot on the ground, which renders the cut crop unusable.
Then begins the process of actually extracting the mint oil.
“It’s on the underside of the leaves,” Wappel says, “in tiny microscopic glands.” He rubs a leaf and the scent drifts up and hangs in the air for a bit. “The oil is what we’re after.”
Once dry, the leaves are chopped and dumped into what Wappel describes as “giant pressure cookers,” then pressurized, with 350-degree steam rupturing the glands and vaporizing the mint oil. That vapor is collected and run through condensers that cool it, returning it to a liquid form. That oil ends up in 55-gallon drums, and that’s what goes to market via a broker of sorts connecting the supplier with producers that turn the mint oil into all kinds of household and other products.
If you brushed your teeth today, he says, the Wappel Grain and Herb mint could be in your home right now.
The move to mint for the family started more than three decades ago, at a time when there were hundreds of producers across the country. Now, Wappel says, those numbers have dropped to fewer than two dozen. But quitting has never been an option for the Wappels—it’s in their blood.
There was a time when Wappel Sr., thought about studying engineering, but the pull of the farm was too strong to deny. Still, it would be hard to argue that he’s not an engineer, a chemist, architect, teacher — name the profession and Wappel can probably dip into it—but most certainly engineering. In addition to keeping a 40-plus year old boiler running (it had been part of a unit torn out of a hospital years ago), Wappel and his team maintain their solar panels, and an intricate irrigation system that improves operations across the farm.
The innovations and additions are part of a long-term commitment to sustainability that benefits their family, but also provides educational opportunity for visitors, including a contingent of international guests who visited last year.
But even that outreach is part of the family commitment to sustainability—what they consider to be a moral and ethical commitment to the land, their community and to one another.
“They really have no choice but to farm,” Debbie Wappel says. “It’s a God-given passion. They work day and night.
“They want to make a living but it’s so much more than that.”