Still happy farmers with copper.
Years ago I met with our wonderful accountants who used to run a farm near us – a farm with large fields of ripe lavender plants. Since they quit farming, they had a large copper essential oil extractor for sale. When I saw the graceful curve of the hammered copper fixture, I was hooked. I’m a fan of cool farm stuff anyway, and this tool brings the steam into steampunk. Imagine a large round copper kettle almost too heavy to lift. This part sits on a propane burner and is filled with several gallons of water to create steam. There is a copper cylinder on top of this kettle, around which I can almost put my arms. This cylinder is filled with plant material such as sprigs of mint or cedar. On top of the cylinder is the still, a curved tube that directs scented steam through the top and down into the condensation coil, which is in a tub of cold water. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with abundant rainwater that we continuously run through the condensation pan and let a stream of warm rainwater come out. We could, if we were ambitious, set up a hot tub to soak in while the machine is working, but for now I only use the warm water to wash horse blankets!
We set up the extractor, filled with plants and water, and seal the joints with adhesive tape. This process shouldn’t smell good, as good smells mean oils are venting into the atmosphere rather than being caught where they drip from the bottom of the condensation coil. Once the connections on this machine are taped, I won’t be able to open them until we’re done! I plan a full day for two batches of plant material. Depending on the plant, this means a pint or two of oil from the conifer branches, which are our staple food. Once I’ve got everything set up and turned on the propane burner, I can take a step back and do other things around the farm – but always with an eye on anything that overflows or steams where it shouldn’t be.
Oil production takes some time, but we can do it in winter when gardening projects and baby goats don’t come out of our ears. We can take a “waste product” like pruned twigs and turn it into a non-perishable, high quality product. If I sell hundreds of pounds of products (which I do) I’ve just sold a lot of nutrients from the farm. When I sell essential oils, I am selling the smallest tip of the iceberg of all flavors here. I don’t deplete soils because the moist plant materials go from the extractor and straight back to the earth, often around the trees they came from.
At first we ran the branches through a small chopper, but that added hours to each session. Now I stick whole branches in and let the steam break off the cell walls. Yes, we get a bit more oil from grinding the plants first – but not enough to account for the extra time it takes to stand in front of the noisy chopper.
We were fortunate enough to come across used equipment and live in a coniferous forest where we can get plenty of plant material through regular blowing. There isn’t a lot of information about essential oils extraction so we’ll discover them on our way. The process aligns with my mad scientist-botanist self and has given our resilient farm a stream of income that fits well into our annual routines. A major bonus is that we have all of the essential oils we need for our wood sauna, but that’s a story for another day. Enjoy the smells of the season wherever you are!
Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator on Hawthorn Farm in western Washington state. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving full-time into farming and enjoying a renaissance woman’s life with something new every day, every season. Read all of Alexia’s contributions to MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.
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Originally published: 04/02/2021 9:24:00 AM