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In Mint Condition

It’s not often you hear of India outsourcing production to a small Ohio town. You wouldn’t expect an aroma cloud of mint to permeate the local hunting store. And you may question why a nearby Mennonite farmer sold all of his cows and took up the ancient language of Sanskrit.

But rest assured, the answers lie in the tea leaves.

In what might otherwise be a utility closet, Farm Bureau member Dan Tropea kneels before a shiny steel machine. It’s as big as a furnace with Chinese symbols on the side. He works quickly with a crescent wrench and orange-handled screwdriver. The blades that cut and seal individual tea bags have lost tension. This is his only bagger, and if it goes down, so does the day’s production.

While Tropea is working out a few kinks in growing, packaging and distributing his homegrown mint tea, profits are finally trickling in.

“Each month has been better than the one before,” said Tropea, who started Mint Brook Meadow Teas in 2003 in Wayne County.

Turning to tea
Wearing a sky blue button-up shirt, suspenders and dark corduroys, Tropea sits down to breakfast in Grandma’s Homestead Restaurant in the Amish village of Charm. Across the street is a hunting shop where a small rented room serves as his production facility. In a rare 15-second pause, Tropea bows his head in silence before steadily devouring his meal of sausage, pancakes and Pepsi.

The appetite of the tall, thin farmer would be extraordinary if it weren’t for a seemingly constant excitement with which he moves and speaks. His words tumble out on top of one another as he describes his decision to give up dairy farming. Abruptly, he pulls out a photograph of his wife – a smiling woman in a bonnet and plain dress kneeling in a vegetable garden.

“We wanted to stay on the farm, and what do we have to do to do that?” he remembers asking when the couple faced the high costs of dairy production.

Friends had always commented on the unique flavor of mint that grew in his pastures. But the idea to turn a few wild plants into a full-time business would lead Tropea to the other side of the world.

A global venture
First he came across a tea consulting company in England. From there he was connected with tea farmers in Africa. Tropea expanded his connections to India, Sri Lanka, China and Japan. He now imports black and green tea from farmers in these countries to blend with his Ohio-grown spearmint and peppermint.

“When (customers) buy our tea, it’s directly from the grower,” he said, even if it comes from another continent.

Tropea is also venturing into custom packaging and distribution of tea for growers in India, which he can do more efficiently due to the size and location of his business. He plans to market one blend under the name Sesa, a Sanskrit word meaning “balance,” suggested by a business partner.

A special tea
While his connections span the globe, Tropea is virtually on his own when it comes to his farm. The vast majority of U.S. mint is grown in western states and is harvested for oil. One of Tropea’s first challenges was finding an effective way to harvest his now 15-acre crop. At first he cut the plants by hand with a sickle but gave up on the punishing work after half an acre. Eventually, he modified a 1954 Massey combine by adding large paddles that gently pull in the plants.

“It was an antique and it was beautiful and we completely destroyed it,” he said, necessity outweighing the apology in his voice.

The cut mint is placed in a dryer heated by burning corn. This technique separates his tea from almost all others, Tropea said. He explained that low quality mint tea is freeze-dried, which causes a loss of flavor. Mint oil must be added to the leaves resulting in an unnatural taste. Sun-dried teas are of good quality but are not as robust. Tropea said air-drying retains the mint’s natural undertones.

Indeed, mint does not overpower Tropea’s teas. The crisp flavor is underpinned with blunt earthiness. The result is a minty resonance that is not as refreshing as it is soothing.

Similarly grounded seems Tropea. The 28-year-old father of five, while spirited, has not fully succumbed to a fast-paced business world. He repeatedly ignores a buzzing cell phone on his hip as not to disrespect the present company. Only after permission and with reluctance does he finally answer.

“Every day I wake up and it’s run, run, run,” he said.

Minting a profit
Already, Mint Brook Meadow Teas has made huge strides. With some astonishment, Tropea recalls that his production costs were three times more than the value of his crop the first year. But persistence paid off as the business has finally climbed into the black.

Tropea admits his neighbors were skeptical when he gave up a successful dairy operation in exchange for a tea farm. Even Tropea recalls his former life with measured sentiment.

“On fall days when it’s nice and it’s green, I miss getting the cows in,” he said. “But on rainy days, I don’t seem to miss it too much.”

But now he hopes his unusual business decision will pique the interest of tea drinkers with a taste for locally-grown foods.

“Tea is such a unique thing,” he said. “While it’s not down the street, it’s still Ohio.”

Attention teachers and parents: Find out how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content standards for social studies.

How to buy
Tropea’s teas are available to most Ohio grocery stores through the company’s distributor. Tropea says to ask your local grocer if you do not see the Mint Brook Meadows Tea label. You can also order online through www.mintbrookmeadows.com.  For more information e-mail [email protected] or call 330-201-1058.