One Victorian hydroponic specialist is growing peppermint bushes hydroponically in an effort to eliminate rust disease problems and deliver a viable Australian-grown, clean, green product. Report by CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL
In 1753, Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus—who is credited with laying the foundations for the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature—first described peppermint from specimens that had been collected in England.
Peppermint has a long tradition of medicinal use. With its high menthol content, it is often used in tea and for flavouring ice cream, confectionery, chewing gum and toothpaste. Commonly used to soothe or treat symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, indigestion, irritable bowel, and bloating, peppermint is also used in aromatherapy.
In Australia, peppermint is considered invasive. Peppermint flowers are large nectar producers—honeybees as well as other nectar-harvesting organisms forage them heavily. An herb that grows quickly under hydroponic conditions, peppermint produces plants as much as 25% faster than those grown in soil. When grown as a hydroponic crop, mint can be raised from start to finish in four to six weeks.
Peppermint, as well as other types of mint and herbs, can be produced hydroponically for home use and can also be sold locally as a fresh produce item to stores and restaurants. Peppermint can also be grown for longer than six weeks in order to produce larger plants.
Peppermint oil is extracted from the leaves of the perennial plant, Piperita mentha. In Australia, peppermint is a perennial crop that is planted in autumn, has its major growth flush in spring and is harvested in late summer after it has dried off.
Australia imports around 35 million dollars of peppermint each year, for use in a multitude of products. The US accounts for more than half of world trade in peppermint oil, with India and Thailand the other major exporters.
Originally established in Tasmania, Australia’s peppermint industry is now also located in the northeast of Victoria. A critical issue facing producers in Tasmania and Victoria alike is the relatively low yields of most crops when compared with industry averages in the United States. USA producers expect yields of oil in the region of 80kg/ha, while industry-wide average yields in Australia remain at less than 60kg/ha.
In Australia, the relatively small quantities of commercially grown peppermint are due mainly to its susceptibility to rust disease that poses growing challenges. Mints are susceptible to verticillium wilt and mint rust. Peppermint is a hybrid and there is no approved fungicide to treat it for rust, which turns leaves brown, making them hard to sell. The fungus causes dusty orange, yellow and black spots on leaves. Rain and prolonged wetting of the leaf are major contributors to the rust.
From these challenges, however, has come a positive result. A shortage of Australian-grown peppermint tea has given rise to an enterprising business trial at the McMillan campus of the Community College Gippsland (CCG) at Warragul, Victoria.
A not-for-profit Registered Training Organisation, CCG operates from multiple locations across Gippsland and southeast Melbourne. It is a rapidly growing organisation committed to providing locally based, high quality learning opportunities in partnership with industry and the community.
CCG Deputy CEO, Jeff Tellefson, describes how hydroponic consultant Paul Baysinger came to the College under the Disability Employment Services (DES) program with some innovative ideas and enthusiasm to re-invent himself and set up his own business growing hydroponic peppermint.
“Paul has done a lot of research on peppermint growing in Australia and the challenges for growers given its susceptibility to mint rust,” Jeff Tellefson says.
“There are only a few growers in Australia and the majority of peppermint tea products in supermarkets are imported. Paul’s idea is to grow the peppermint bushes hydroponically, which he hopes will eliminate the rust problems and enable him to grow a viable Australian grown, clean, green product.
“Paul is undertaking Certificate III in Horticulture and the training is workplace-based. The trainer, who is impressed with Paul’s knowledge and motivation, visited Paul regularly and he completed learning guides for each unit,” Jeff explains.
“Paul also receives mentoring under the DAAWS program and this mentoring is on small business management to improve the viability of his business.”
The hydroponic industry at McMillan has operated as a social enterprise and to date has provided employment to four people with a disability. It is one of a number of enterprises at McMillan, including a tree nursery and Red Angus stud.
“Community College Gippsland gained a 30-year lease on the McMillan campus three years ago when Melbourne University no longer wanted to deliver training from the campus,” Jeff says.
“The facilities were not being utilised and included a number of greenhouses and hydroponic equipment. CCG delivers training in the classroom and in the workplace to trainees and apprentices studying Horticulture from Certificate II to Diploma level.
“Paul Baysinger was on an Employment Program with CCG 18 months ago. Paul had experience in hydroponics and his case manager suggested the Horticulture Department at CCG employ him to operate the greenhouse and hydroponic equipment that wasn’t being used,” he says.
“The initiative will also provide a valuable learning opportunity for CCG’s horticulture students and industry visitors to see first-hand a hydroponics business from the growing right through to the selling.”
Paul had always grown plants as a hobby and was keen to lease the empty greenhouses on the campus to establish his own business and test his peppermint.
For the past five years he has concentrated on the peppermint, using hydroponics.
“Then (the college staff) started taking some interest in some of my trials,” says Paul.
“Paul has now been with CCG for 12 months and is currently undertaking Certificate III in Horticulture as a trainee,” Jeff says.
“The advantage for CCG is the equipment is now being used and trainers can incorporate the hydroponic enterprise into the students’ studies.”
Paul decided to grow peppermint after reading articles that describe how the local crops grown outdoors had been affected by rust in the past two years due to the wet seasons.
“CCG decided to experiment growing the peppermint under plastic. Paul has also grown lemon thyme and mint as another grower wanted supplies in winter, however, these sales didn’t eventuate,” Jeff says.
From passion to profit
Paul has a passion for growing peppermint, and, with the college’s help, is determined to find a solution to peppermint’s biggest disease problem, rust.
CCG’s rural education services director, John Brereton, is working together with Paul with a Tasmanian chemist to develop an essential oil to hopefully get rid of the rust.
“It’s an organic product. The last thing we want to do is spray it (with chemical),” says Paul who is testing 2600 peppermint plants in a hydroponic greenhouse measuring 10 x 20 metres.
If he can solve the rust problem it could be a lucrative breakthrough, as most of the $35 million worth of peppermint tea sold in Australia each year is imported.
Other challenges include having to deal with aphids in the crop. To this end, an IPM program using predatory wasps has been implemented.
Paul has also brought in a $2500 hand-held harvester from Japan, which is designed to keep the plants fresh, reduce moisture and lower the risk of rust. An invaluable time saver, the harvester has eliminated the previous need for one person an hour to harvest a 10-metre square table of tea by hand. Now it takes around five minutes only to cover twice the area.
“The growth is so prolific we couldn’t keep up (by hand),” Paul says.
“If we had had this harvester before, the rust wouldn’t have been so bad. We can now control the growth and reduce the humidity.”
In 2013, CCG has gained funding through the Trade Training Centres in Schools to upgrade the Horticulture and Agriculture facilities at McMillan. The funding is for a technical training school that will allow local schools to provide agricultural and horticulture TAFE programs at the campus.
Plant health specialist John Brereton has taken on a mentoring role for Paul.
John said a new training centre grant for the campus would assist the tea trials.
“The greenhouses will be upgraded and we will get a new greenhouse worth $465,000, which we will be able to use for trialling and experimental purposes,” John says.
“We hope it will be used for demonstration of best practice in greenhouse management.
“The upgrade will enable the greenhouse that Paul is in to be re-skinned and double-skinned with the vents being upgraded to give greater climate control. This will increase the productivity of the enterprise and make it more commercial,” adds Jeff Tellefson.
Two smaller green houses will be re-skinned in the upgrade, enabling Paul to expand the operations. The new greenhouses will also have better climate control, which will help manage humidity and hopefully, rust.
“We want to be able to crank up the heat and that will help the humidity,” John says.
The peppermint plants are grown using a nutrient recycling system with rainwater and nutrients fed directly to the plants’ root systems. Water and nutrients are controlled 24 hours a day by an automatic system.
The resultant product, peppermint tea, is dried on shadecloth racks in another greenhouse.
Looking to market its hydroponic peppermint, CCG has had discussions with two businesses that have expressed an interest in purchasing peppermint. It is hoped this could offset the rent Paul should be paying for the use of the facilities.
This year a grant has been secured from Helen MacPherson Smith Trust to cover Paul’s wage and rental for the facility. This enables him to trial selling the peppermint at local markets as income for his business.
“In 2014, we aim to develop a more commercial arrangement,” Jeff says.
Paul Baysinger said the College had enabled him to fast track his business forward at least five years. He plans to market the business under the name Neerim North Peppermint Tea.
“My partner Renee and I have been growing peppermint at our Neerim North property on a small scale with a view to producing tea to sell to health food shops and at markets,” he says.
“To now have the use of a facility of this size at McMillan is a major step forward. We can now produce a sizeable crop hydroponically with potential to sell to larger manufacturers in the oil and food industries.”
Paul also has a personal motivation in pursuing his passion for peppermint tea.
“I have two boys and just about everything they own is made in China. My driving force is that my boys might have a job with something that’s grown and packed in Australia.”
About the author
Christine Brown-Paul is a Sydney-based journalist and regular contributor to PH&G with a special interest in the environment and sustainable technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
PH&G – June 2013 / Issue #132