Farming is a cyclical business and while many of the region's bread and butter crops are down, a specialty crop is up: Peppermint.
The fragrant leaf has doubled its footprint, to 2,800 acres, up from 1,400 acres in 2000. It's grown in Orvada, a farming region north of Winnemucca.
The peppermint is distilled for oil, says Martin Owens, director of Nevada Agricultural Statistics Service of the USDA, housed at the University of Reno, Nevada.
One distiller, Dan Hetrick of Hetrick Brothers Farms Inc., with 700 acres in mint, says the crop is typically grown in northern latitudes, primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Winemucca is at the southern end of its range.
Rick McClintick, who operates McClintick Farms, Inc. with brothers Randy and Terry McClintick, credits the high desert's cool nights for the good quality of the 600 acres he's planted in peppermint
Farmers sell the distilled oil to brokers who, in turn, sell it to companies like Colgate and Wrigley. Toothpaste is the major end product. But it's also used in candy, gum, tea, and even medicines.
Each acre yields 106 pounds of peppermint. The oil sells for $12 to $13.50 a pound.
That works out to about $6 a gallon, says Brad Schultz at the Humboldt County Cooperative Extension Service. Or $600 to $800 per acre.
Hettrick has planted about 700 acres in peppermint, but growing the crop is just half the battle. Distilling the oil, the commercial product, is the second step.
Equipment a swather an chopper is a major investment. Then, Hettrick says, the leaf is packed into totally sealed containers, much like a pressure cooker. It's boiled to generate steam, then the vapor falls back into liquid form. Finally, the oil, which floats on top of the water, is removed.
But peppermint, says McClintick, takes a lot of fertilizer and fuel.
The distilling process requires an 850-horsepower boiler that burns up to 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel a day.
Top-quality oil requires fertilizer growing more expensive by the year and lots of water. And all that water takes costly energy to pump, as well.
"I was talking to my buyers about raising prices," says McClintick. If prices don't rise, he won't plant mint next year.
While the farmers also plant the mainstay crops like alfalfa, potatoes and barley, unusual crops are nothing new to McClintick and Hettrick who, like farmers everywhere, try to hedge their risks.
Hettrick plants Kentucky bluegrass, and Indian rice grass both make gluten-free flours used by people who are wheat intolerant. He's also experimenting with Teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia. It's sold to ethnic food stores.
Why experiment? "When profit margins get so close, you think there may not be a profit," says Hettrick. "There's always a chance that some little crop will pull in a better price. Or, it might fill in for a rotational crop."
McClintick plants reclamation grasses: Magnar and Anatone and Bottlebrush Squirrel Tail. He took the risk three years back, after fires raged across the basin. But since then, he says, there haven't been many fires. Until this year. "This year," he says, "I may be able to sell that three-year backlog."