We use it in tea, lip balm, shampoos and a myriad of culinary recipes. It grows like a weed in North America, but is the currency of survival for many struggling farmers in India.
Mint, a common plant that includes menthol, peppermint, lavender and sage has for years, a redeeming quality that has benefited rural farmers in Asia's second-largest country: It's simple to grow and harvest, and doesn't take a lot of technological knowledge to benefit from its crops. It can also be sold as an oil and repurposed to a variety of commodities.
That's been great for manufacturers that use herbs like peppermint and spearmint in their high-demand candies and drinks. According to Agribusiness Systems International (ASI), some 750,000 mint farmers in India produce 80 percent of the cash crop.
Mars Wrigley Confectionery (Mars), which produces well-known products like Wrigley Gum, Altoids mints and Extra has been looking at whether increased training on new growing techniques could increase profits and output for mint farmers, some of whom produce their living from one acre of land. Introducing growers to technological advances, it reasoned, might not only benefit the farmers, but reduce water consumption and improve environmental health.
So Mars contracted with ASI to train farmers on new techniques over a one-year test period to see the impact that the changes would have on crop output and family farms. They trained 2,645 growers from more than 60 villages and found they were able to increase the farmers' yield by an average 68 percent.
Their initial studies determined that India's mint industry is a non-certified industry that largely relies on subsistence farmers with an average of two acres. Improving rootstock, mulching procedures and other farming methods would raise yields and revenue for multiple stakeholders across the industry. Mint often follows a two- or three-step process before it actually reaches the manufacturer, meaning that the actual revenue for the mint grower can be small. Using certified cultivars, Mars found could improve yield and the potential for a better sell rate.
And while distillation is a common method for extracting mint oil these days, the study, which was published last March also found that "most farmers prefer not to use [distillers]."
Mars and ASI's current goal is to train 22,000 farmers on improved techniques for growing, harvesting and processing mint and mint oil. Mars' investigations determined that doing so could potentially improve environmental processes that in turn, could save water usage.
Human rights has been an issue of concern in many states that rely heavily on farming, and Mars' study examined this issue as well. Gender and labor rights are issues that the company felt would be addressed with better training and resources. While there has been increasing concern about farmer suicides in states impacted heavily by crop loss and environmental problems, India's mint-growing regions are not experiencing this problem to the same degree.
It will be interesting to see whether Mars' ongoing effort to boost crop yields in this product will lead to more sustainable and dependable earnings for India's mint farmers, and whether that in turn, helps to increase dialogue about gender parity and better labor conditions, which Mars openly supports. Mars has been a growing leader in sustainability initiatives in recent years. Upgrading farming and processing techniques for one of India's most prolific crops may in the end, be a win-win for all.
Images courtesy of Mars
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.