Third-generation mint farmer competes in an evolving industry with the help of a WSU Vancouver MBA

Seely's roots run deepMike Seely is a third-generation mint grower and a Washington State University alumnus. It is this combination that forms the root of Seely’s being. Seely’s parents raised five children on a farm nine miles north of Battle Ground. He said the farm taught him about responsibility and sometimes required the family to work 48 hours straight through.

“Nothing ever broke down at harvest during normal weather conditions. It was always way too hot or pouring rain,” said Seely.

One summer during a hot spell, the shaft on the chopper twisted bringing harvest to a halt. Seely’s father and a brother made a 2 a.m. trip to Portland, and with the permission of the owner, busted into a business and used a cutting torch to take a shaft out of another chopper. By the time they got back with the part, the family’s chopper was running and harvest was back on track. Another brother and a hired farm hand called in an old-time machinist who fixed the shaft and reinstalled it on the chopper.

Mint farmingAt 14, Seely started farming on his own. He leased a small plot of land not far from the Washington State University Vancouver campus and raised enough mint over the next seven years to pay for his degree at WSU.

Attending WSU was a family affair. Seely’s sister Marion was the first to head to Pullman. She started the trend by graduating with a master’s degree in speech therapy in 1969. Brother Steve was next with a degree in industrial engineering. Warren was third with a degree in electrical engineering. Dan was fourth with a degree in mechanical engineering. Seely brought up the rear with a degree in electrical engineering in 1984.

Some Cougars never get enough

Seely came back to school at WSU Vancouver and received his MBA in 2009.

“Coming back to school at WSU Vancouver, changed everything about the way we do business,” said Seely, who today operates a 600-acre mint farm in Clatskanie, Ore. “It has changed everything for the better and was one of the best decisions I have made. Not only was it a great learning experience, but I took something from every class and used it on the farm. Our cost accounting system helps us understand how the farm is performing and where we can improve. Stakeholder Theory helped us look at and evaluate who has a vested interest in a particular issue and why. Once we understand that, we can work with everyone to ensure great results. ‘Niche Market and Quality Aspects’ helped us launch our new product lines.”

“I used my MIS class to evaluate technology for our farm. Today we are on the leading edge of technology for mint farms,” said Seely.

He uses infrared (IR) and near infrared reflectance (NIR) technology to monitor pests. Aerial imaging helps manage the farm’s water and can even detect if an individual irrigation nozzle is plugged. GPS units on self-propelled farm implements remove overlap and reduce energy usage and the farm’s carbon footprint.

“We, as mint growers, need to embrace technology as much as possible. It will help us remain competitive from a production/cost standpoint as well as show the world who we are,” said Seely.

Today Seely is a member of the Cougar Business Alliance, which gathers Cougar alumni from all Washington State University campuses who own or operate a business in Southwest Washington or the Portland metropolitan area. The Cougar Business Alliance looks for ways alumni businesses can work together, refer one another and form partnerships.

“Being a member has been great. Ideas shared by other members have really helped our business. We have picked up valued customers. One member even took the time to find us a piece of farming equipment we were having a hard time finding on our own,” said Seely.

More on mint

Mint tea satchetsIt takes 23 cubic feet of mint to produce one pint of mint oil. One pint of mint oil flavors 45,000 sticks of chewing gum. One pound of tea leaf makes 252 tea bags.

Mike Seely’s mint oil is steam-distilled and food-grade. His teas are naturally sundried and the leaves are separated from everything else. They raise nothing but single-cut, premium-quality mint.

Twenty years ago the U.S. dominated the mint oil industry and almost all mint products such as toothpaste, chewing gum, mouth wash, Altoids, etc. were flavored with 100 percent U.S. mint oil. According to Seely, U.S.-produced mint oil is the safest, highest quality mint oil in the world.

Today the U.S. mint industry has about 50 percent of the worldwide market share. Washington is the number one producer of mint in the U.S. and Oregon is number two. Mint production in the U.S. has dropped from nearly 10 million pounds to less than 70 percent of that today. Less expensive, different-quality mint oils from other countries are competing with mint oil produced in the U.S.

“I cannot think of a commercially produced toothpaste or chewing gum today that uses a pure, single-cut, premium-quality menthe piperita produced in the U.S. Everything is blended with the less expensive, different quality oils now. Mint products used to have a smooth, creamy taste that was a reflection of how U.S. growers raised single-cut, premium-quality mint to produce their oils. Now those same mint products have a bitter aftertaste that frankly makes me wonder why I bought the product in the first place!” said Seely.

“I believe the U.S. mint industry needs to continuously evolve to remain competitive worldwide. We, as a group, need to develop a sustainable strategy and market it through a carefully thought out branding and imaging campaign. We need to take our history, i.e. the highest quality, safest mint products in the world, together with how we produce a sustainable mint to show the world why people should prefer our product,” said Seely.

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