By Gillian Slade
You could call it the cat’s meow; a farm near Bow Island producing for the world’s demand for catnip.
Large containers full of catnip are stacked in rows ready for shipping to far flung regions of the world. The label proudly proclaims: LCAT, Lynn Thacker Ag. Corp. Made in Bow Island, Alberta, Canada. The majority is shipped to China and Taiwan where toys for cats are manufactured and stuffed with catnip to the “delight of felines the world over,” said Thacker, third generation farmer near Bow Island.
LCAT is virtually the only catnip operation supplying the market. There is one other grower Thacker is aware of but it is done on a small scale and is all organic. Thacker’s catnip plant resembles a mint plant and has small white/pink flowers. The leaves can be used to brew a catnip herbal tea. A catnip essential oil can be produced by steam distillation and this is often used to rejuvenate the catnip smell in those cat toys or to persuade cats to use a special scratching post rather than ruining living room furniture.
Thacker first began growing catnip about 15 years ago. “The biggest difficulty is the growing,” said Thacker. “We grow between 200 to 400 acres but that varies from year to year.” The catnip is harvested in October and the essential oil production takes place immediately upon being harvested. Special trucks coming in from the fields are hooked up and steam pumped in. The distillation process, all computer programmed, has improved both the yield and quality of the product, said Thacker.
The computer also determines at which point all the oil from the plant has been extracted. The remaining organic product, in the trucks, already purified by the steam, is taken back to the fields. It is an ideal fertilizer and because it is purified will not result in any additional weeds that sometimes come in from manure or other fertilizers. The product not used for essential oils is sorted into leaves for catnip tea and for stuffing those feline toys being manufactured.
A conveyor belt moves the product for sorting while staff ensure containers are in place so that the process is continuous. From the cooled warehouse the containers will be shipped over the next 12 to 16 months.
Cats like catnip but they aren’t heading to the Thackers’ farm like rats behind a pied piper. That is because they seem to know when there is enough of a good thing, said Thacker. On the farm there is simply too much; it would be overpowering to a cat.
The impressive distillation process on the farm, the design of which has been modified by Thacker to perform optimally, also processes peppermint and spearmint essential oils. Most of that product is supplied for chewing gum and toothpaste. After an early morning dew, or light rain, the fresh minty scent from the farm wafts across hill and dale. Residents say it makes them want to take deep breaths of the fragrant fresh air.
Ask Thacker where the idea came from for such crop diversification and ingenuity and he’ll tell you it’s his father, now 105 years old, who encouraged him to think outside the box and explore different ideas. There is also a personal drive.
“I have a real passion for farming,” said Thacker.