From Farm to Shake: Alumnus Mike Seely Reinvents Mint Business with Peppermint Patties
By Becky Kramer
A breeze from the Columbia River sweeps over Mike Seely’s 650 acres of mint fields near Clatskanie, Oregon, carrying the holiday scents of peppermint and spearmint with it.
Past the fields and down a gravel road, workers in a modular trailer are packaging peppermint patties made from mint oil distilled on the farm. The candies are headed to Burgerville, a regional chain that specializes in locally sourced food, where they’ll become the signature ingredient in the restaurant’s mint patty shakes.
Peppermint patties helped keep Seely—a third-generation grower—in business when synthetic flavorings sent mint oil prices tumbling. He credits his MBA from the WSU Carson College of Business for giving him the skills to develop the farm’s value-added side.
“Every one of my classes has been valuable,” says Seely (’84 Elec. Eng., ’09 MBA), whose candy products are also carried by Whole Foods, New Seasons, Fred Meyer, and specialty grocers. “From understanding the cost of goods sold, to learning how to motivate employees, negotiate with outside stakeholders, and use social media in marketing, all of the classes built on each other.”
Seely’s story could be its own business case study, says Tom Tripp, the Carson College’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, who is evaluating the possibility of using it as a lesson in business strategy.
“It’s a classic example of how the environment changed around him, and how he had to figure out new markets to survive,” says Tripp, who had Seely as an MBA student. “He pivoted to peppermint patties, and they were a hit. He used his contacts to get his products into stores. It grew from there.”
A Transition to Candy Production
Watch a video of Mike Seely.
Mint was once a lucrative crop for Northwest growers—Seely paid for his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at WSU Pullman by growing mint on 10 acres of his parent’s farm in Clark County, Washington.
Although he majored in engineering, Seely’s heart was in mint production, which also was his parents’ and grandparents’ livelihood. He was still in college when he bought the land near Clatskanie, establishing perennial crops of native spearmint and heirloom Black Mitcham peppermint.
But by the early 2000s, synthetic flavorings were replacing domestically produced mint oil in chewing gum, breath mints, toothpaste, and other products. After Seely lost $100,000 on the mint farm in 2007, “I thought we were done,” he says.
Visits to the Portland Farmer’s Market changed his mind. He rented a booth and sold tea leaves and vials of spearmint and peppermint oil. To show home cooks how they could use the oil, Seely gave out samples of peppermint patties produced by the farm.
But “people didn’t want to make their own candies,” he says. “They wanted to buy ours.”
Production took off after a Whole Foods forager discovered the peppermint patties. As the retail clientele grew, Seely Mint expanded its product line to include candy canes and other novelties.
While the candy operation was scaling up, Seely was also taking MBA classes at WSU Vancouver. It was the era before the Carson College switched its MBA program to an online degree. Working full-time and attending classes, Seely earned his MBA over several years.
“He was one of those wonderful students who genuinely wanted to understand the material and apply it right away,” Tripp says. “He would ask questions about things his company was experiencing.”
With manufacturing experience through his farm operation, Seely says the transition to candy production came naturally. But he credits his MBA studies for making the switch profitable. His finance classes, in particular, helped Seely track the full costs of candy production and arrive at a price point that works for stores.
Negotiating skills and stakeholder theory from his MBA also come in handy, Seely says. He’s active in local land use issues, advocating for development that’s compatible with his farm. Seely still sells mint oil to brokers, but the value-added side has become an increasingly important part of the revenue stream for Seely Mint, which he operates with his son, Warren (’16 Elec. Eng.).
About a dozen people work for the candy production side, and the farm is hiring. Candy sales peak between September and December, so Seely is looking for opportunities to increase sales during other times of the year. He’s also hired a broker to help him get his products into new stores.
The Burgerville Connection
Seely’s connection with Burgerville began about two years ago, when the Vancouver, Washington, based chain was reevaluating its milkshake menu.
“We’re a regional company that prioritizes relationships with local ranchers and farmers,” says Hillary Barbour, Burgerville’s director of strategic initiatives. “We want to put the best quality ingredients from the Pacific Northwest into our menu, which focuses on burgers, shakes, and fries.”
A company employee—who was familiar with Seely’s peppermint patties from Whole Foods and New Seasons—suggested using them in a sweet cream-based milkshake.
“We wanted a mint shake representative of the Northwest,” says Ciara Lamia, Burgerville’s supply chain director. “Mike has a super delicious product and a wonderful story. It’s been a great partnership.”
Seely’s farm appears in the company’s social media campaigns, and he visits restaurants to help pass out shakes. “Guests really love to have that direct connection with local growers,” Lamia says.
As he ponders the farm’s future, Seely is both practical and optimistic. Commodity prices for mint oil remain low, causing more growers to exit the business.
“In 5 to 10 years, I think we’ll be the last mint farm left in Oregon,” Seely says.
To meet the new challenges, Seely says he’ll continue to draw on his MBA as his business model evolves. Besides finding new markets for Seely Mint’s products and scaling up candy production, he’s considered agricultural tourism.
He can picture a mint festival on the farm, tours of the candy operation, and even the ability to host meetings and special events.
“I get requests all the time from people who want to visit the farm—school groups, retirement homes, you name it,” Seely says. “We’re not set up for public tours, but that could be part of our future.”