Monday, November 18, 2013

Hitting Oil at gardendwellers FARM

It's time for another installment of "what do gardendwellers do?"!

So, what DO gardendwellers do when its the first snow that stays for the season?

The first thing I do is look at what's left and says "Man!  I hate to see this stuff just go to waste."  And then I set about putting Tall, Dark, and Handsome to work getting the still together to take the rosemary from the high tunnel and turn it into essential oil and hydrosol.

This is the rosemary right AFTER I picked - so you can see we still have a bumper crop left - but not for long with the cold weather.

Yes, we have a still.  If you're a fan of the show Moonshiners then you're familiar with the concept.  Except we're after what others in North Dakota are after right now, oil - not moonshine.  AND, our oil is not black - but it is worth a lot and if you try to buy a barrel of it you'll be paying way more than you would for a barrel of crude.

We got our still as a part of an APUC grant back in 2007.  We were trying to determine if essential oils from herbs grown in ND would yield more than other herbs and if there was a market for them.  In the end, we learned a few things:

One - getting oil from herbs is a difficult and time taking task.
Two - separating the oil from the hydrosol (the water containing the oil) is a difficult art to learn.
Three - finding a market for it once you have oil or hydrosol is just about as difficult as the first two.

If we could find a market for it - this would be an excellent way to utilize the herbs we have at the end of the season or even during the season - the ones that are not quite high enough quality to go to the grocery store shelves.  Instead, many times these herbs just feed the compost pile. 

So, I got a wild hair and decided it was time to try the still again.

First, you pick the rosemary and wash it.  Then you set up the still.  Then, once you remember how it all goes together like a puzzle and figure out all the steps so you have the gauges and outlets all facing the right way - you pack it full of herbs.

You have to pack it as full as you can.  Really stuff it in there.

Then, we use distilled water in the tank.  Using distilled water ensures there are no impurities in our hydrosol or oil.

Then you put the 'beak' on it and connect it to the condenser.

The condenser has coils inside that the product steam flows through.  It's purpose is to cool the steam back into the distillate which is separated hydrosol and oil.

After these two are connected you add the final piece of the puzzle - the essencier.  This is a special piece of equipment that helps to separate the precious oil.  Learning to use this piece of equipment is the key to the whole process.

You can see that one tube goes into a clean gallon jug, we use the ones from the distilled water.  This tube will collect the hydrosol.  The other little tube going into the small jar is for the oil.

Then you just plug the thing in and wait, and wait, and wait.  The whole process takes about 6 hours and needs to be tended the whole time.  There is a spout coming off of the condenser, if that begins to spout steam, you need to draw water from the condenser and replace it with cold water.  If you are losing steam, you are losing oil.

Eventually, little drops of water begin to fill the essencier.  It takes a lot of time to get to this point and even more to fill that essencier.  Some times we will pre-fill the essencier with warm water to speed up the process but that's not really recommended if you want really good hydrosol or oil.

The esssencier has a little tiny hole in the top where the oil collects.  There are set screws that you need to monitor and raise and lower according to the level of hydrosol and oil.  We're not very good at using these screws and usually end up with a high quality oil and then a lesser quality oil in the end.  In this photo you can see the really rich rosemary oil on the top of the jar and the lighter oil on the bottom.

Oh how I wish this blog had smell-o-vision!  At this point in the process it really is beginning to smell great!  Holy Rosemary its strong this year!

In the end, after hours of tending and adding water and removing oil we have over a gallon of hydrosol and over a pint of oil.  It's great stuff because the herbs have been cold, making them keep all of their oils in the plant instead of transpiring it out like they do in the heat of summer. 
After a few tests, I have decided that the hydrosol still has an amazing amount of oil in it and the essential oil is awfully pure too.  Very pleased with this batch!  Now if we could just find a market for it.

Right now, online, you can find other herb growers that sell rosemary hydrosol for $7.00 for 3 ounces.  That makes our product worth about $500.  The oil sells for $7 to $8 and ounce.  That makes what we have in oil worth about $150.  All totaled $650 worth of product - but its not worth anything if you can't find anyone to buy it.

Hydrosols and essential oils are used in bath and body products, in candles, in homeopathic remedies and in many other ways.  They smell great.  Heck, you could even dump a bunch in the bathwater if you just want to treat yourself some time.

So here's the thing- if you  know of anyone who uses hydrosols or essential oils - send them our way.  We've got some GREAT rosemary product that we'd love to get rid of - I'd even make them a good deal!

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