I grew up in the Sax-Zim peat bog in Northern Minnesota. This glorious 300 square mile swamp provides bountiful food and breeding ground for migratory birds the world over. It was also the site of my family’s ill-fated junkyard where, so far as I knew, all water swirled in rainbow hues.
Growing up in a peat bog mostly meant that my sneakers were constantly wet from exploring the family land between Highway 7 and the railroad tracks behind the shop where iron ore trains passed each night. I certainly wouldn’t have known, while stepping on hornets nests embedded in the weeds, that this stinky gunk was considered an economic opportunity for the Iron Range.
But it’s true. Peat is a primordial version of coal (which is nothing less than pre-diamonds!) Peat traps carbons in dense formations, creating function as fuel or ingredients for chemical products.
Scientists have studied the region’s peat reserves for decades. Initially, the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board funded research by the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. The hope was that harvesting peat could provide economic opportunity being lost as natural iron ore mines played out.
The research was promising but didn’t attract investors. The rise of the taconite industry to mine lower grade iron ores ultimately drew attention away from the swamp.
Again in the late 1970s, as I emerged from the womb unaware of my fate, researchers explored the bog for spoils. The hope then was that some sort of clean energy future could be extracted from the temperamental sludge. Again, promising results, but again no investor.
It seems peat will never power our homes and vehicles, but it may well have other uses.
A friend sent me an April Fool’s meme last week depicting a brand of peat-flavored chewing gum. I remarked that chewing this product would be just like falling face-first into the swamps of my homeland. But I looked further. The joke originated from the Laphroaig Distillery in Scotland.
Pronounced La-FRYOG, this distinct scotch whiskey is made with peated malt. That’s a fancy way of saying that the malt is dried over burning peat for a day and a half. The result is a scotch that tastes like “like getting kicked in the face by a horse that’s been galloping through a peaty bog,” according to one review.
“In a good way,” they add.
The Laphroaig brand has very dedicated customers, who no doubt tout the hand-cut peaty flavor every time they take a sip. I’m sure that probably annoys their friends, so it must be good.
I certainly know plenty of people who might like to see the Iron Range distill its own peated whiskey to spur economic diversification. Personally, I’d like to see the stuff called “Peat Grog.” Second choice would be “Peat’s Sake,” as in the Japanese beverage. In any event, with three new breweries in Grand Rapids and Hibbing, spirited beverages appear to be a growth market. I don’t drink the stuff, so that makes me an ideal candidate to sell it.
Even without the hooch, we see that demand for cleaner chemicals might again open the door for biofuels and biochemical products made from peat. The stuff isn’t quite solid and isn’t quite liquid, but it could be money in the bank.
From cleaning products to customized plastic compounds, biological materials like peat could become big business as oil supplies dwindle around the world.
One of these days they’ll figure it out. Meantime, one could always make chewing gum out of it, though the reasons why escape me.
Anyway, peat bogs still make excellent playgrounds. Sometimes the kid even survives into adulthood. The birds and bugs love the peat bog most of all. That alone is reason to celebrate this squishy terrain found in a swamp near you.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 9, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.