Change in system increased productivity of crop
By SEAN ELLIS
The first two mint fields in Idaho to be put on drip irrigation systems fared well this year, and more of the state's mint growers are expected to adopt the practice as a result.
"It looked really good and I was really pleased with how it did," said Nampa farmer Robert McKellip, who this year became the first farmer in Idaho to irrigate a mint field using a drip system. "The yield was really good."
McKellip said the 56-acre field produced a lot of hay when harvested earlier this month. He suspects that's a result of the plants more efficiently using water and fertilizer, which were both injected through the system.
Overall, the plants produced 15 to 20 percent more oil than McKellip's other first-year mint fields. He said the system significantly reduced his water, fertilizer and labor costs.
About 25 miles west of McKellip's field, Hamanishi Farms was the second Idaho farm to install a drip system on a mint field. Though deemed successful, the performance of that 70-acre field was a little spottier.
"Overall, we're pleased with it," farm manager Jon Fabricius said.
However, the yields weren't as good as the farm had hoped for, he said. That's likely because the existing wheel lines on the field were still being used to water the mint plants until July 4. Fabricius turned to a drip system for the first-year field because the wheel lines couldn't provide the high-water crop with enough water.
"Basically, the crop was starved for moisture until the Fourth of July," he said. "Then it took off after the drip system was in."
Per load of mint, Fabricius said, the field produced as much or more mint oil than his other fields, and it produced about 20 percent more oil than it would have if it had been kept under the wheel lines.
Half the cost of McKellip's drip system was paid for by a Clean Water Act grant provided through the Canyon County Soil Conservation District and the cost of Hamanishi's system was partially offset by a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant.
James Eller, district conservationist for the Caldwell NRCS field office, expects a lot more of Idaho's 13,000 mint acres to be converted to drip systems once farmers are convinced the economics are there.
"You're seeing the innovators and businessmen that really squeeze out the numbers adopting these practices now," he said. "But once people see that it pays, they're going to be doing it, I guarantee you. That's business."
McKellip, president of the Idaho Mint Growers Association, will speak about his drip system during the group's annual meeting in December.
"There has been a lot of interest in it," he said. "I think you'll see quite a few more acres on drip systems go in over time."