Mint Condition

Mulberry Creek Herb Farm’s Legacy Crop

It’s August in northern Ohio. The sun is merciless and the soybeans and corn—field after field of them—are up everywhere. It’s a reminder of what we often imagine when we think of the American farm: big combine harvesters rolling across fields of grain. Large scale. Subsidized. Mulberry Creek Herb Farm is an exception. In fact, you just might miss its entrance, if it weren’t for the stone sign on the far side of the drive. It’s a two-story farmhouse with a barn and several greenhouses in the back. There are potted plants around the back steps. This is not amber waves of grain. The Langan family grows hundreds of tidy rows of flavorful herbs on a little more than an acre. This, too, is an American farm.

I am visiting now—long before this story will go to print— because the mint, including the peppermint used in Mitchell’s Fresh Mint Chocolate Chunk ice cream, is about to flower. And when that happens, it’s all over. It gets bitter, and it can’t be cut. These are the last moments after the four months of mint harvest: April, May, June, and July.

Read the rest of this story...

Like most of the farms that now surround it, Karen Langan’s family property—the plot that Mulberry Creek Herb Farm sits in the middle of today—used to turn out livestock and grain. Seventy-five steer were housed in a steer barn and, at one time, Karen’s parents farmed roughly 1,100 acres. Mark and Karen figure they’re the seventh or eighth generation on this same stretch outside Huron. “I wanted to live in the city so bad,” says Karen of her childhood on the farm.

Her fascination with city life took her to Seattle, where she met Mark. But she was called back to Ohio at 25 by aging parents and the land she didn’t know she’d miss. “The land was everything to me,” Karen says. “I thought, this is almost getting neurotic … I’ve always wanted to preserve this farm.” When she returned, she took up three years of grain farming with her father to build capital for growing the crops she knew she wanted to grow: herbs.

“When I lived in Seattle, I worked at Molbak’s. At that time, they grew 65 different herbs,” says Karen of the area gardening shop. When she came home, she developed a new plan. But it wasn’t just the dream of a 20-something making a triumphant return from the West Coast. “Because we’re German,” says Karen, “my dad said it’s better to be practical. So it was a practical matter.”

On March 3, 1995, Mulberry Creek Herb Farm opened with 100 different varieties of herbs. In less than a year, the farm took off because of a combination of sound principles and business sense. Years earlier, Karen’s older brother, Jim, helped push their parents to adopt organic farming practices. “He said he’d take the money used on chemicals and do it organically instead. We were one of the early ones,” says Karen. So early, in fact, that their OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association) certification number is only 167.

Mark and Karen have also made some prophetic choices about their business. Within three days in February 1996, Karen gave birth to their first son as they received 100 calls about their organic stevia. They created a catalogue on request and started a mail-order business that continued for 12 years. Karen and Mark—ever stewards of the family land—made another change: stop the national sales and focus their business here at home. “We were using resources to ship stuff that was available locally,” says Mark. “We were sending organic basil to California. If you can’t find that next to every Starbucks, you’re not looking.”

Mitchell’s Ice Cream found the Langans thanks to their similar philosophy. Mike Mitchell used to get his mint from Hawaii—big branches of it—until he started working with Mark and Karen to provide ice cream for their annual herb fair.

“There’s a lot of romance there, and anybody can visit it,” Mike says. “There are all these different paths to work with food as a producer. You can farm 500 acres of corn or soy. What Mark and Karen did is they came back here and started a little organic herb farm at a time when you didn’t see too many people doing that.”

When he tasted their herbs in his ice cream, he asked if they’d grow mint for him. “I love Hawaii,” Mike says, “but it’s better if we don’t have to fly our mint in from there. With Mark and Karen, what you get is someone who knows the translation of what they’re growing into how our ice cream tastes.”

After producing ice cream for the Langans’ annual herb fair, Mike continued to rethink his relationships with suppliers. He saw the mutual benefit in the symbiosis between small-scale farmers with serious expertise and a growing local ice cream producer.

“I just love learning about plants that taste really good, and Mark and Karen know everything. You get the wrong lavender and it tastes like soap. You get the right lavender and it tastes dreamy,” says Mike.

In addition, the Langans’ expertise made a difference in the product. “Mark knew just to pick the tips of the mint,” Karen says. And with an uber-flavorful, local crop and a focus on sustainability, Mitchell’s was able to reduce the amount of mint they used in the recipe.

Mark Langan speaks with authority on herbs of all kinds, but when I ask about mint, he pauses and laughs. “With mint, it was a learning experience. It gives you a headache when you pick it, and you can smell it from 50 feet away.”

The farm grows 12 to 15 varieties of mint. “We like orange, pineapple, ginger, apple, and spearmint for fruity, lighter concoctions. The mojito mint and mint julep for adult beverages, habek mint for tabbouleh, pennyroyal mint to repel fleas, Corsican mint for its low-growing ground cover habit, and chocolate mint to flavor coffee,” Karen says.

There is a mint variety for almost everything, and peppermint is the one that gives Mitchell’s Mint Chocolate Chunk ice cream its distinct flavor. “We reserve our peppermint because of its rich, deep flavor, which lasts during the ice cream-making process for Mitchell’s,” she says.

Finding and cultivating the right flavors for ice cream suits Mark and Karen. Their lavender, lemon verbena, and lemongrass add earthy depth to other flavors of Mitchell’s Ice Cream, and together, they make up the dedicated (and aptly named) Mitchell’s Greenhouse.

Heart and soil

Relationships are at the center of this kind of farming. “Just to tell you what kind of people they are, Mike said, ‘We’re not paying you enough,’ and raised the price 20 percent,” says Mark about the farm’s partnership with Mitchell’s.

When I speak with Mike, it’s a feedback loop of kindness. “Agriculture is food. Food is agriculture,” he says. “We have this relationship with our grower that gives us the best food that we can possibly use in our ice creams, and they do it with a low-carbon footprint. It’s hard to make a living doing that, and we can help them make a living.”

Mark and Karen are kind, and they speak easily about their history and lives on the farm. But to do this kind of farming, they also have to be a little defiant. “We are the slow plant movement,” Karen says. “We do things by hand. And we’re lucky to be in an area that grows so much.”

The fertility of the region is a frequent topic with Mark and Karen. “Herbs must have well-draining soil to thrive. We are blessed with a mineral-rich, heavy soil that has the beautiful drainage of sand, but holds nutrients like a lovely loam soil,” Karen says. “Though we have about 60 different soil types on our family’s farm, most fall under this category of sandy loam.”

Mike remembers something the Langans told him once. “Mark always says that because the soil is so rich there, before the days of corn and soy, the area around that plot used to be the salad bowl of the upper Midwest.”

He pauses. “So it’s neat to see at least a small patch of that land return to a use that we can feel good about.”

The green light

The farm’s single mint greenhouse produces about 30 pounds of mint every other week during peak season, and the next generation of the Langan family is already staking its claim. “Our sons have taken over the bulk of the mint crop for three seasons now,” says Karen, “and they have taken it over with gusto because it pays so well. They like delivering it because they always get ice cream.”

The Langans employ about 10 people part time. The afternoon I visit the farm, Steve, the farm’s recently retired full-time steward, is slicing and eating an heirloom tomato from the yard. He salts and peppers it. He offers me some. We are all enjoying the shade of a house that has still trapped some of the morning cool. Thinking about mint ice cream helps a little.

This past year has been a difficult one for Mulberry Creek. There was a fire, then a windstorm. A faulty soil ingredient damaged crops, and seven months of road closures damaged the bottom line. But when I ask Karen how they’re managing, the practical approach that enabled the Langans to convert cattle barns and corn fields into the largest selection of herbs in Northeast Ohio shines through.

“We’ve moved most of our production into spring, cut labor, worked twice as hard, and were blessed with supportive customers, that is, family and friends,” Karen says. “We see a light.”

At winter’s end, the light is inevitable for Mulberry Creek, and not just because of the longer days. Two festivals—the Faery Fest in April and the annual Herb Fair in June—will bring old and new customers to the farm.

“We chose Scarborough Fair as our theme this time, to get back to the basics of herbs starting with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” Karen says. Because Simon and Garfunkel’s version of the song was popular in the 1960s, they’ll be featuring a 60s/70s hippie theme in some of the vendor items, fashion, food and even their own gardens.

Both upcoming festivals are celebrations of herbs and gardening, but they’re also be community events, occasions for customers both new and longstanding to bond over food and gardening on a different kind of farm.

Mulberry Creek Herb Farm is open 10am–5pm Tuesdays–Saturdays, and 1pm–5pm Sundays, mid-March through July, as well as 10am– 8pm May 4, 11 & 18. Hours change in September–December.

Faery Fest is set for April 13–14. A celebration of miniature gardens, it features scavenger hunts and games for kids, plus a food truck. The Langans host their 22nd annual Herb Fair on June 22–23. For more information, call 419.433.6126 or visit MulberryCreek.com.