Specialty crop farmer leverages the power of irrigation

And others will do the same as massive irrigation expansion comes online, says Dale Thacker

Not your typical harvest scene: Dill being harvested at Dale Thacker Specialty Crops.

If you’ve ever chewed a stick of gum or used a minty toothpaste, there’s a reasonable chance the spearmint inside is from Dale Thacker’s farm.

The southeastern Alberta producer has been growing specialty crops — starting with spearmint and expanding into a host of others — for more than three decades. Most depend on irrigation for yield, quality or both.

So it’s no surprise, then, that Thacker sees big opportunities arising from a historic $815-million, 200,000-acre expansion of the province’s irrigation system.

“This announcement is significant,” he said. “Irrigation provides a certain level of assurance that specialty crops will actually grow, be harvested and get to the processors. More irrigation will bring in a wider variety of crops.”

And that will attract investment and create jobs, he said.

“The spinoff from a healthy ag industry is huge and will most likely be needed to support crops that we are not even aware of yet. These are even exciting times for all the associated ancillary businesses that aren’t directly identified with ag but are part of the overall fabric of the communities in southern Alberta.”

Thacker’s Bow Island location already offers some advantages in growing his specialty crops. But in many cases, irrigation is the not-so-secret sauce.

“We have strengths in this area such as a really long growing season, high heat units and long, dry harvests which create more stability and guarantee of production,” said Thacker, who also grows peppermint, dill, hybrid seed canola, hemp, wheat, and green and yellow peas.

“But with those strengths come weaknesses. Mother Nature just does not provide much natural rainfall. So irrigation is the key that unlocks that climate advantage and allows entrepreneurial producers and innovators to try to make southern Alberta’s economy more robust than ever.

“This announcement is not just for farmers — it’s for everybody.”

Additional irrigation capacity may encourage Thacker to expand even further into specialty crops.

“We’re always looking for something new. That’s just what we do,” he said.

Spearmint grows from cuttings, not seed. Although a perennial, a field of spearmint will be taken out after five years. photo: Supplied

A big help will be the project’s focus on replacing open irrigation ditches with piping to eliminate evaporation and seepage.

“Replacing ditches will not only let us farm the areas more effectively — we won’t have to worry about leaky ditches and wet spots — but it will also allow us to expand into areas where we don’t have irrigation right now.”

Spearmint a fussy crop

Despite the many specialty crops he grows, the discussion frequently seems to come back to spearmint.

In some ways the perennial crop has become synonymous with the family name (the farm’s website is www.mintfarm.ca) and was the first specialty crop the family operation — then known as George Thacker Sons — invested in back in the 1980s.

The family was looking for a way to get out from under the then-predominant Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) single-desk marketing system and into a crop that would allow them to market their own products.

“Thirty-five years ago, trying to get away from the CWB, we got into spearmint because it appeared to be something that would fit into our area,” he said. “It seemed this small region had the microclimate that was necessary, whereas other places in Alberta and Saskatchewan have thrown in the towel because it just isn’t economical.”

Growing spearmint and the other essential oils Thacker produces is expensive and prices can vary widely.

“The essential oil crops we grow are niche, low-acreage markets and can be easily overproduced. That is the case now and as a result the prices are depressed. Specialty crops tend to be small-acreage crops but irrigation is usually required to ensure quality.”

Producing spearmint is challenging, even in a suitable climate with lots of irrigation water. “Because mint is not grown from seed, root cuttings are used for expansion,” said Thacker.

There’s also the cost of expensive specialized equipment to consider. Spearmint requires a unique threshing system which distills the crop down to its raw product (the essential oil) that is then sent for further processing. Thacker has a specific facility on his farm for distillation.

Dale Thacker swathes a field of spearmint on his farm near Bow Island in southern Alberta. The swather is the only traditional farming implement used in producing spearmint, although in this case it’s heavily specialized for the crop. photo: Supplied

“It’s quite a commitment to grow. It is expensive, difficult and time consuming. What complicates this even more is it’s a perennial. It likes lots of water, lots of fertilizer. It is the highest-water-use crop we grow.”

Thacker does his utmost to find efficiencies. Variable-rate, low-pressure pivot irrigation systems with drop tubes cut water use by 40 to 50 per cent versus sprinkler heads on top of the pivot spans. The region is windy, which only reinforces this style of irrigation, he said.

“With variable-rate irrigation it can be programmed to automatically shut off individual nozzles over a wet spot and can irrigate more on hilltops. This technology makes pivots more effective.”

Winterkill is an annual worry.

“You get the wrong type of winter — which has happened to us — and you get to start your establishment all over again.”

So why not just throw in the towel? Significant sunk cost is one reason, but passion is another.

“If you want to be serious in this game you need to go all in or all out. You’re either a mint farmer or you’re not,” said Thacker.

Thacker has up to seven crops growing on his 7,000 acres (4,000 irrigated) during any single growing season. He rotates his spearmint every four or five years.

“Rotations are key with spearmint. The irrigation gives us the ability to rotate effectively. We’ll put one field of spearmint in for five years and then take it out and put another one in for five years. So we have a continuous program going.”

In addition to spearmint, Thacker distills peppermint, dill and some of his hemp into essential oils. The move into dill oil was to spread “the high cost of the distillation facility over more acres.”

Many wonder what dill oil is for, but again, you’ve probably consumed some.

“Remember Grandma used to put a dill umbel (stems with the flowers on) in the pickle jar?” said Thacker. “But the trouble was Grandma’s pickles would sometimes be very dilly and other times not so much. It was difficult to be consistent.

“So we provide (dill pickle processors) with kosher-certified essential oil to put in a pickle jar to solve that consistency concern.”

Dill is also a tricky crop to grow.

“We can grow dill on dryland but by itself the quality isn’t what the market requires. We end up having to grow part of it under irrigation; that way the oil can be blended to meet market specifications.”

It’s another example of how irrigation can open up doors for new value-added processing, said Thacker.

“It gives control over quality.”

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