Our Essential Oils Cottage Business Yields Great Smells and Useful Cash



Happy farmers with copper still. Photo by Alexia Allen

Years ago, I met with our wonderful farm accountants, who used to run a farm near us—a farm that had big fields of mature lavender plants. Since they were getting out of farming, they had a big copper essential oil extractor for sale.  When I saw the graceful curve of the hammered copper contraption, I was hooked.  I’m a fan of cool farm gizmos anyway, and this tool puts the steam in steampunk.

Imagine a big round copper cauldron, almost too heavy to lift.  That part sits on a propane burner, and is filled with several gallons of water to produce steam.  On top of this cauldron is a copper cylinder I can just about wrap my arms around. That cylinder gets filled with plant material, like mint or cedar branches. On top of the cylinder sits the alembic, a curving pipe that sends scented steam through the top and down into the condensing coil that sits in a tub of cold water.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re blessed with abundant rainwater that we run continuously through the condensing tub, and get a stream of warm rainwater coming out.  We could, if we were ambitious, set up a hot tub to soak in as the machine works, but for now I just use the warm water to wash horse blankets!

We set up the extractor, stuffed with plants and water, and seal the joints with tape. This process should not smell good, because good smells mean that oils are escaping into the atmosphere instead of being caught where they drip out of the bottom of the condensing coil. After that machine has its joints sealed with tape, I can’t open it 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 that are our staple material. Once I set everything up and get the propane burner going, I can step back and do other things around the farm - but always with an eye towards anything overflowing or steaming where it shouldn’t.

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