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Wed July 22, 2009
Nation's oldest family mint farm fights foreclosure
By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News
St. Johns, MI – The Crosby Mint Farm near St. Johns bills itself as the oldest continuously operating mint farm in the country. It first planted roots back in 1912. Jim Crosby and his sister Linette are preparing for the farm's 98th harvest - and they're fighting to keep it from becoming their last. The farm is in foreclosure, and the siblings are trying to sell enough mint oil to stave off an auction.
The Crosbys say they'll weather this storm and they're planning a project they believe will ensure their long term future. But as WKAR's Kevin Lavery reports, diversifying the family farm can be a tough row to hoe.
A trip to the Crosby Mint Farm in Clinton County is a sensory experience. First, there's Eddie, who welcomes everyone with a soulful vibrato.
And then it hits you. A crisp aroma envelopes you like a giant gum wrapper. The air, the ground, your clothes -- are awash in mint.
Jim and Linette Crosby steam press mint leaves to extract the plant's natural oils. They bottle it and sell it, mainly as a medicinal product.
Jim Crosby never tires of its fragrance, or of the August ritual that's an almost spiritual part of his life.
"And there's nothing like being at the farm during harvest on a full moon at the end of the day," Crosby says. "You've got the steam hissing, you've got a full moon out, you've got the fog that kind of goes over the field, and the smell of the mint for five or six miles. It's just very relaxing."
But there's another fog hanging over the harvest this year. The Crosbys are in danger of losing their entire operation. The problems began in 2005 after the death of their father. Jim and Linette took out four separate loans just to keep going. But Linette says when they fell behind on one payment, their lender took action.
"So they called all four notes, and we have liquidated most of our equipment," Linette says. (Lavery: "How do you run a farm when you sell off your equipment?") "You save exactly what you need for the next harvest and be creative."
The lender foreclosed last August, which began a one-year redemption period. Now, the Crosbys have less than a month to pay back their debt. Linette doesn't deny they've made some poor financial choices. But she says they've got the means to make it right.
"The beautiful thing is that we have the inventory and the mint essential oil to pay the whole farm off," says Linette.
The Crosbys package their oil in one-eighth ounce bottles called a dram. They need to sell $300,000 worth to reclaim their farm.
Down the road from his field, Jim opens a huge steel vat. At capacity, it holds 2,800 pounds of spearmint oil. But this room is only a shadow of what it used to be.
"We had six and we're down to one, just to control what we had liquidated early on to get us to this point," Jim says.
The Crosbys are looking beyond their immediate stress and taking the long view of their future. The siblings have invited the public to tour their farm for years. Now, they're drawing up plans for an ecological preserve, complete with walking paths and a healing center. Linette says it will be a place to keep their mint heritage alive.
"And give that back to the people," Linette explains. "Because Jim and I feel real strongly this isn't about us keeping this property in our name anymore. It's about keeping the farm for our community; actually for the nation."
The Crosbys are asking Michigan State University for advice. MSU's Product Center does market analysis to help entrepreneurs develop new products and services. Director Chris Peterson says while Michigan's economy is generally ripe for agritourism, success goes to the farmer who markets something that's almost intangible.
"Your product is the experience," Peterson says. "To keep even the local consumer coming back, you've got to continually add new experiences to make that kind of business go in the long run."
Jim Crosby says he's willing to do that. He says if he could do it all over, he would spend less time sowing and more time selling. He loves his farm and the life it's afforded him for so long. But as his deadline nears, Jim tempers his romantic views with a dose of realism.
"If in fact they do take us over and get rid of us I have to believe that I have not been taken this far that there will not be another door that will open," Jim Crosby says. "If I have to start over, I'm committed to do that."