What is being called the world’s first solar-powered flour mill is now in operation at Frankferd Farms in Butler County, Pa. Just think. Hardly a century ago, when local food was just about the only food, the countryside was dotted with water-powered grist mills and now we are headed that way again only with sun power. The farm and mill are organically certified and the business is actually so successful it reaches out to quite a large “local” area. It provides yet one more example of how the decentralization of the farm and food business is progressing toward local food independence.
Progress like this invites different ways of thinking about energy other than what fossil fuel generates. As I was doing my yearly job of cleaning out the corncrib yesterday in preparation for the new crop, I realized that the crib (in the photo above) has something in common with that flour mill. It too uses nature’s energy directly. The sidewalls are slatted to allow for air penetration and tilted outwards from bottom to top so that rain hitting the wall falls down and away from the corn, not into it. The length and height of such a structure can vary, depending on need but the four foot average width is standard and critical. Tradition learned that in a crib that narrow, air can penetrate through the eared corn inside and dry it down to about 13% moisture when it comes from the field already nearly that dry and keep it from molding indefinitely. Heat from the sun coming through the metal roof helps. It dawned on me, thinking of Frankferd Farms, that what I have here is a solar and wind-powered corn dryer as well as a storage bin. (Note also that the crib is built up off the ground on metal- covered supports to discourage rats, and the crib is encased in chicken wire to discourage squirrels.)
Then I had another eye-opener. The Amish are out cutting corn and setting up their corn shocks as usual this fall, and these structures also are solar- and wind-powered dryers. Erecting a corn shock properly is both art and science. The twine-tied bundles of corn are set up, two bundles against each other, two more on either side of the first two, and then perhaps a dozen more bundles added around the core to form a sort of teepee-shaped structure, the tassel ends of the bundles all together at the top, the butt ends on the ground spread out enough to give the shock stability and a bit of space between the bundles to allow air to flow through. Then the whole is tied tightly with twine towards the top so that rain runs down the outside of the shock. Air can readily move through the bundles as they absorb warmth from the sun. A good shock made with cornstalks each holding an ear that is already dented, will complete the drying process using only free wind and solar power and keep the corn safe from the weather through a winter if need be.
What makes the corn shock even more efficient is that the fodder— the corn leaves and stalks— also dry into good livestock feed with this free wind and solar power. It is possible to feed the stalks and leaves from corn harvested in the modern way, but such fodder has been exposed to the weather so long that it has lost most of its nutritional value. Fodder in the shock is still greenish when it dries, like good hay. I remember years ago a neighbor fattening steers by feeding the bundles from the shocks directly, grain and fodder together and making an excellent, low-cost profit. He didn’t even have to husk the ears because the steers ate them, cob and all, along with the fodder.
I look into my murky crystal ball and see little fields of corn shocks far from Amishland, and little slatted corncribs like mine everywhere. Serving each community will be a solar-powered flour mill.