Archive for May, 2011

solar food dryers

Last August, I built a solar food dryer according to the plans in Eban Fodor’s book, The Solar Food Dryer.  It’s the blue one in the picture and I’ll refer to that as the SunWorks (SW) design.  I wanted to know if I could actually dehydrate food with the sun in humid Virginia.  The answer is Yes!  In October, I built a second solar dryer according to plans developed by Appalachian State University (ASU).  Those plans were in two articles that I found online from Home Power magazine, issues #57 (Feb/March 1997) and #69 (Feb/March 1999).   I’m studying how to lessen my dependence on fossil fuel as far as food is concerned, so solar drying is high on my list to explore.  I have an Excaliber food dehydrator that I bought used in 1992.  In those days, I was deep into canning our extra produce and learning a new method of food preservation did not fit into my schedule.  Besides, when in use the Excaliber pumped hot, humid air into the house and it made noise.  Of course, canning produced hot, humid air, so at the time, it was the noise that bothered me the most.  I might have used it for tomatoes more, but even with nine trays, it only held about 10 lbs. of tomatoes and it took 24 hours for them to dry completely.  I was processing lots of tomatoes in my kitchen for our family of 6 and would run 2-4 times that amount through the canner in an afternoon and be done.  I used it periodically for making beef jerky.

Times have changed.  Now it is usually only two of us at the dinner table and I’m open to some new ideas.  I still don’t like noise and I also want to eliminate the hot, humid air of both canning and from the electric dehydrator (not to mention all that fossil fuel).  Last summer, I found that the tomatoes in the solar food dryer would be almost dry by the end of the first day.  I could leave them in the dryer overnight and they would be finished the second day.  That was okay because I didn’t have to listen to a motor or have any disruptions in the house.  The only concern was if it would rain the next day.  The SW design has an electric option that I built.  One day I had tomatoes in it and was gone for the afternoon.  That day a storm came up with a brief rain.  My tomatoes were fine inside, but I plugged it in that evening to complete the drying, since the next day would be cloudy.  I found that I used it so much more because it was just there and the sun was shining.  I would look around the garden each day to see what I could put into it.  I never did that with the Excaliber.

The SW design has only 60% of the drying area as my Excaliber.  Since I’m interested in processing a large quantity of food, I built the larger ASU design which has 1.4 times the drying space of the nine tray Excaliber and about 2.25 times the drying capacity of the SW design.  Last fall, I was acutely aware of how fast the sun was sinking each day because I had to keep moving the solar dryer so as not to be shaded by the trees on our property whose shadows kept getting longer.  When I finished the second dryer by October 21, I was able to dry two batches of apples before I called it quits for the year.  The larger dryer stayed out in the weather all winter and the SW dryer spent the winter in the barn.  Now that it is time to use it, it is outside all the time with an old grill cover thrown over it during down times. 

When I built the first dryer, deciding on how to build the screens was a big thing.  I sized the dryer to the storm window I had. To have one screen on each level required screens that I thought would be unwieldy getting in and out of the house, so my design called for four screens, two on each level.  I ordered food safe screening material from the author’s website at http://www.solarfooddryer.com/ and I’m pleased with it.  I made one screen frame with some old wood, cut to 1/2″ by 3/4″ and was unhappy with the results.  Then I found out how easy it was to make the aluminum frames and made the rest with that.  Once I used them my feelings changed.  The aluminum frames were HOT to the touch when in use and the wood frame wasn’t.  Also, I may be doing something wrong, but I have to keep resetting the plastic spline in places or the screening will pop out of the aluminum frames. 

dryer screen detail

 When I made the larger dryer I made nice wooden frames with knot-free wood cut to 3/4″ by 3/4″.  The corners are glued lap joints with one screw.  These screens are wonderful and actually cheaper than the aluminum ones, but they require more skill to make.  They don’t get hot and I can stack them with the food on when carrying them in and out of the house.  Having a tablesaw and a terrific husband as my helper is my secret to success. 

I added 8″ to the length of the legs on the SW dryer and put old lawn mower wheels on one end.  To make it level on the other end, I added aluminum corner strips, which hold the legs 2″ off the ground, protecting them from rot.  In spite of having some materials already, such as the window, wheels, sheet metal, screening for vents, and aluminum tape, I spent $162 (before tax) on the SW dryer.  If I would have made wood framed screens instead of the aluminum ones, I would have saved $18.  Hardware adds up quickly and I spent $7 on the two side carrying handles, which I felt were important to the use of the dryer.  Hinges also add to the cost, so if you can scrounge the hardware, you will be well ahead.  Including the electric option cost me $23, with the porcelain sockets costing $5.49 each.  By the way, the ONLY place I could find those fixtures was at an ACE Harware store.  I tried other places and other sockets, and those were the only ones that would do.  My goal was getting it built and seeing if it worked, not building it with the least money.  I’ll be helping a few friends build their dryers in a couple weeks and my experience will help them save some money and time.  They’ve already visited the Habitat Restore and found a good deal on some hardware.  This dryer is lightweight and easy to move around.

The ASU dryer cost me $385 (before tax) to build and I bought everything except the wheels, washers, and caulk.  I wanted to do a good job on it, since it would be out in the weather and I wanted it to last a long time.  I had to buy twice as much glazing as I needed and cut it lengthwise.  The price includes only what I used for this project.  I’m sure I’ll have use for the rest sometime.  This is a large object, so be sure you have a sunny spot that is large enough before building it. 

The price per square foot of drying area comes out pretty close to the same for these two dryers, which is about $3 more per square foot over the price of a new nine tray Excaliber that I found online.   I noticed that the new Excaliber is listed at 600 watts and my old ED-301 model is 1050 watts.  The ad also says that it has 15 sq. ft. of drying area.  The 15″x15″ trays in my Excaliber actually only have 14″x14″ of screened drying area, with a 1/2″ plastic frame all around, for a total of 12.25 sq. ft. for the nine trays.  My calculations compare the actual screened area on all three dryers.

drying in the sun

So, I’m ready to go this summer and I want some company.  The more of us who are out there doing this and talking about it, the more we can share what we know and build the momentum of learning.  I don’t have lots of experience using the solar dryers yet, but I’ve used them enough to know that they work.  Last summer, I dried tomatoes, peppers, peaches, apples, summer squash, snap beans, onions, greens, and made raisins from my grapes.  Last week, I dried collards twice.  They were easy and were done the same afternoon.  There was lots of sun during the week, however the clouds moved in this weekend, after I had put some summer squash in.  It served as a reminder that we need to be flexible when we are working with things like this.  I’ll use the dryers when I can, but if we have a week of rain and produce is coming out of the garden faster than we can use it, I’ll get out the canner.  The biggest adjustment to using the dryers is to get the trays filled as early as possible in the morning, to take advantage of the sun.  I encourage you to read Fodor’s book, even if you are going with your own design.  It’s full of much valuable background information.   You might not have a good place to use a solar dryer yet, or the skills, time or inclination to build one, but you could obtain an electric one to get started learning about dehydrating food.  The important thing is to get started.  By the way, people have told me they put their electic dehydrators in a spare room so they didn’t have to listen to them.  On September 17, I’ll be giving a presentation on Low Energy Food Preservation at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello.  Come and hear about my summer with the solar dryers.  Sandor Katz of Wild Fermentation fame will also be there.

My next post on June 14 will be about growing grains in your garden, so stay tuned.

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rye shedding pollen

Last week I cut the cereal rye growing in the beds that will hold my Bloody Butcher corn.  The rye was shedding pollen.  At that point it most likely won’t grow back if cut.  Cut it earlier and it will, cut it later and it will already be on its way to seed.  Cereal rye seeds look somewhat like wheat, not to be confused with ryegrass that looks like grass seed.  This rye was planted last fall.  Its growth crowded out the weeds and soaked up any goodness in the soil, holding it to give back to the next crop.  If I didn’t cut it now to lay down as mulch, I would leave it grow out to seed in June.  My harvest then would be straw as carbon for the compost pile and seed to plant or eat. 

Managing cover crops this way is a sustainable no-till method.  I lay down that rye by cutting it with a Japanese grass sickle, sometimes known as a kama.  I leave the rye lie in the bed for two weeks to settle, then transplant into it.  The rye biomass becomes the mulch for the corn, tomatoes, or whatever crop has been transplanted into it.  The rye cover will gradually decompose and feed back the the next crop.  In the case of the corn, two weeks after the corn goes in, I interplant sweet potatoes.  The sweet potato vines spread out all over the area and provide a living mulch that covers the soil after the surface rye decomposes. 

grass sickle

Years ago I bought the grass sickle I use from Hida Tools.  It is their model with a 6″ blade. I added the hole in the handle and the cord to hang it up with.   A less expensive model is available from Way Cool Tools here in Virginia.  Obviously there are some differences, but if you are on a tight budget, the less expensive one can get you started.  My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows me in action cutting wheat and rye with it.  On a larger scale you could use a scythe. 

Cereal rye puts down a tremendous amount of roots that compost in place once the rye is cut, adding organic matter to the soil.  Timing is of upmost importance. You want to take advantage of the natural progression of the plant.  Once it starts thinking of going to seed, root growth stops and the energy goes to seed production, which is why you want to wait until pollen shed to cut it.  After the pollen comes the seed.  Unless you are growing that crop to harvest the grain, you want to cut it before viable seed is formed, or you will be replanting it right there if you leave it lie as mulch.  Of course, sometimes you will want to grow it out to seed and harvest the grain and straw.  More about that in a later post.

rye cut in May

By not tilling the soil, you are preserving the organic matter.  The roots of your cover crops do the tilling for you, going down deep to open up the soil, allowing air and water to penetrate.  Once you have a good rotation in place with cover crops you will notice your soil getting better and better.  However, it is important to have a dense cover or the weeds will creep in.  Late planting, poor quality seed, inexperience, and of course, the weather are some reasons that could lead to a sparce cover.  Once you understand how it all works, you will most likely be more successful.  If you do have weeds, pull the rye mulch back and do a little cultivating.  The tighter your rotation plan, the less chance for weeds to take hold.  As soon as one crop is harvested, the next one goes in.

You will want to use a strong trowel or a soil knife to transplant with.  If the roots are still too tough to transplant into two weeks after cutting the rye, you may want to wait another few days or a week and try again.  If the rye is actively growing back, it was cut too soon and you will have to do a little more work to cultivate.  Make a note to cut later next year.  This method works great with tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes, to name a few crops, however planting this way means you are putting them in maybe as late as a month after your last expected frost.  If you are really in a hurry to plant earlier, you would want to use a different preceeding cover crop.  Legumes such as hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas can be taken down earlier.  Actually, there is a little of the legumes in my rye crops.  The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition is an excellent resource to help you decide which cover crop would suit your needs.  It is available through sare.org.   My video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan cover crops into your rotation.  Cover crops used to be something you only considered planting if you had a tiller to manage them.   Managing them with hand tools in your garden is possible.  The learning is in the doing.

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In April, 1999 I became the proud owner of a Country Living Grain Mill.  It was a big purchase for our family, but I had been using a Corona mill occasionally for about ten years and had decided it was time to get serious about having fresh ground flour.  The Corona was good for cornmeal, but not so good for whole wheat flour for bread.  The effort it took was not something anyone in our family wanted to endure on a regular basis.  I scoured the internet looking for information about all the choices out there.  I wanted to save money, but I didn’t want to buy anything that would end up being too troublesome to use.  I finally decided to go with the Country Living Mill and have never regretted that decision.  It’s the white one in the picture.  In September, 2010 I had an opportunity to try a GrainMaker mill when the folks who make it were at the Mother Earth News Fair in Somerset, PA.  I really liked it and thought it seemed easier to use than the Country Living Mill.  I was in a position to buy it and, since part of my mission is to help others along this path, I thought it would be great to compare the two and share my experiences.  Long story short, the GrainMaker mill is now my favorite.

The GrainMaker was ready to use out-of-the-box except for attaching the handle.  It even came with five pounds of wheat berries!  I was right, it was easier to turn than the Country Living Mill, but then I realized that I didn’t have the extension handle on the Country Living.  Once I put that on, the handles were about the same length and the effort to use them was about the same.   What really made the difference is the amount of flour generated with the same effort.  The GrainMaker produced TWICE as much flour as the Country Living Mill with the same number of revolutions!  In 300 revolutions I have gotten about 1 c.3T. flour with the Country Living Mill and 2c.6T. with the GrainMaker.  The amount of flour in the jars is what I got from one 300 revolution trial for each mill.  What is in the breadpans catching the flour is from another 300 revolutions.  You can see from the pattern of the flour in the pans that the Country Living Mill drops flour mostly from the sides of the grinding plates, but the GrainMaker Mill also drops a significant amount in the middle.  The pattern on the grinding plates of the GrainMaker is rather different, which might account for that.  Another big plus with the  GrainMaker is that the corn/bean auger sits on a spindle on the mill and is super easy to exchange with the grain auger.  There is more involved with changing out the augers with the Country Living Mill and I have to remember where I put the extra auger and other small pieces needed.  If I could change one thing about the GrainMaker, it would be to have a longer wooden handle, such as the one on the Country Living Mill.

The GrainMaker is now attached to my kitchen counter and the Country Living Mill will eventually go to one of our grown children, when they are ready for it.  For another testimonial from someone who has used both mills, check out Dan and Margo’s Circle of the Sun blog for January 27 and April 6.  I have mounted each of my mills to a piece of 3/4 ” plywood with lag screws.  I use C-clamps to hold the plywood to the counter.  We removed the lower cabinet door and I made curtains for that opening with slits that allow the clamps to go under the counter.  Knowing that many people might not have counter space for a mill, I wondered how it would do on a small cart.  I have one in the kitchen that holds the many jars that seem to be always around.  I attached the GrainMaker to it to see how it would work, anticipating I would need to move the jars and maybe add some weight, but it worked so smoothly, the jars stayed put, including all the ones in the bottom of that cart.  Since it had wheels, it did move a bit when I was grinding, but once I rolled it over onto the rug, the problem was solved.  If your kitchen currently has no space for a mill, you might want to consider buying or making a cart that can be pushed out of the way when not in use.  You could store your grains, dehydrator, or whatever you want on the rest of the cart.  Locking wheels would be good, or roll it to a rug to use.

There has been a price increase and some design changes since I bought my GrainMaker, but knowing what I know about both mills, I would still choose the GrainMaker over the Country Living Mill.  Twice the flour for the same work is a HUGE difference and I’m not getting any younger.  Not everyone can buy the mill of their dreams  right now.  Remember, I started out with the Corona so many years ago and I still have use for it now and then.  Start somewhere and work from there.  If a mill doesn’t grind fine flour, it can surely make cornmeal or crack wheat berries and rice for hot cereal.  In her book The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe prefers using her Corona mill to grind corn to make polenta.  Do any of you have thoughts on grain mills that you would like to share?

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