Mint farmer Mike Seely wins export assistance scholarship, funds
Near Clatskanie, people can find various farms out in the area but might smell a hint of mint on Hermo Road.
Third-generation mint farmer Mike Seely and his wife Candy operate Seely Family Farm, where they grow peppermint and spearmint for tea leaf and essential oil. Mike Seely is also the chief executive officer for Seely Family Farm Inc., Seely Mint, which makes various products such as peppermint patties and candy canes.
Seely already exports products to Canada but can now use funds from Greater Portland Inc's Growing Small Businesses Globally export assistance scholarship for internationally focused sales activities. The scholarship also offers training sessions with seasoned export advisors, according to a press release by the organization.
"I wasn't expecting it," recalled Seely. "I'm excited because we do want to grow our business outside of the U.S. and Canada. I need to learn more about it."
Seely added that he hasn't used the funds yet due to events during the coronavirus pandemic that have impacted his family directly.
"I lost my mom a day after her 95th birthday to the coronavirus," he shared. "I'm excited about (the scholarship) and want to get back to it. But between losing (my) mom, the struggles on the farm, it has kept me pretty busy. But I do plan on getting back to the scholarship right after harvest."
Along with losing his mother, the coronavirus also impacted Seely's business. In April, the company only received one purchase order.
"It literally just dried up, even through we're at the cash registers at Whole Foods (and) close to the cash registers at New Seasons," said Seely.
He doesn't know exactly why sales became nonexistent but says it could be because "people had to stand six feet apart and everybody just wanted to get out of the store as soon as possible."
But Seely says the scholarship by GPI gives him hope for the future.
"There's not always the cash flow to go do something," he said. "Frankly, if I didn't have that scholarship, we probably would not be entertaining as seriously (exporting) to Southeast Asia or Western Europe. You only have so much money, and you can only do so many things. Not only us, but it gives other entrepreneurs in Oregon and Washington the opportunity to take a look and evaluate the opportunities across the world."
GPI's announcement said the scholarships come at a crucial time, as many small business owners are struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the program's inception in 2018, the organization has awarded 48 scholarships to local entrepreneurs.
"Exporting is crucial in helping our local businesses grow beyond our region," said Matt Miller, Greater Portland Inc's interim president and chief executive officer. "We are proud to connect these entrepreneurs with resources to help them succeed, even in the midst of this downturn. The success of these local businesses is a key component in our region's successful recovery."
Exporting for the first time can present significant logistic, legal and financial hurdles, added the organization. The scholarship draws in local industry experts to guide participants through the process.
Some export partners include Business Oregon, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The sessions focus on topics such as export finance consultation and designing a foreign market strategy.
The scholarships are also funded by a grant from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation.
"We feel our support of GPI's Growing Small Business Globally program is an important way we are helping to build the long-term success of the local economy," said JPMorgan Chase regional manager Michael Hurley. "One of the most urgent challenges we face is the need for more inclusive economic opportunity and we know that helping minority-owned small businesses is a powerful strategy for promoting economic mobility."
Other than the scholarship, Seely is excited to work with the restaurant chain Burgerville. Last year, Seely's company started supplying peppermint patties for the chain's milkshakes, which was helpful for Seely Farms when sales were low during the COVID-19 crisis.
The patties are a combination of European dark chocolate and Seely heirloom mint.
Originally, the patties were an afterthought, Seely notes, until around 2011, when his family began bringing batches of the homemade patties to the Portland Farmers Market, where the Seelys sold their mint oil, teas and soaps on a weekly basis.
"Now (orders) have picked back up," Seely said. "We're back to as near normal as possible, but we're also growing."
The Seely family is also involved in different aspects of the overall business. Seely's children, Warren and Caryn Seely, recently leased 211 acres where they will grow mint and graze cattle adjacent to the Port Westward Industrial Park, according to a press release by the Port of Columbia County on Wednesday, June 3.
"I'm really excited for this opportunity to work with the port," said Warren Seely in the announcement. "I think this lease will be a benefit to the port in terms of getting the ground cleaned up and looking nice, and an opportunity for my sister and myself to expand our farming operation."
The Port of Columbia County Commission also approved a 243-acre lease agreement with Columbia River Ranch for cattle grazing.
"These two leases are definitive proof of what the port has been saying all along — that agricultural and rural industries can coexist positively together side by side at Port Westward," said port Executive Director Doug Hayes. "The port values our local farms and we're pleased that we are able to assist both of these farmers."
Mike Seely says his kids have inspired him to keep going in the mint business. Without them, he doesn't know exactly where his aspirations would be.
"If I didn't have kids that wanted to do this, I would have been done 10 years ago — I would have quit," he said, "sold out and walked away from it because it's a lot of work."
As for the future of the company, Seely is working out various deals with big stores such as Costco and Target. The CEO hopes to have a Valentine-themed peppermint patty in time for Valentine's Day, if those stores decide to place orders.
People can currently find Seely Mint products at Whole Foods and Fred Meyer.
"There's always new products that we can develop," Seely said. "The secret is using real heirloom black mint peppermint oil that is raised the traditional way. That's where the flavor profile is just — wow."
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