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Field to Bike! A New York Farmer shares experience grinding corn with bike powered mill

Submitted by Devin Dinihanian

When, after using my intern bed at Phillies Bridge Farm in New Paltz to grow corn with the intentions of making my own cornmeal, I heard that my friend BR at Hearty Roots was doing the same thing, I thought that perhaps we were onto something. Farmers growing their own cornmeal? That’s a value added crop that might be a great addition to a CSA or Market farm. Corn is one of my favorite plants to grow, not only does it fare well in dry climates and require little care or maintenance, but it has a high yield and, theoretically, can be converted into a storage food for the whole winter. Who doesn’t love a good corn bread on a cold January day?

Here is a brief summary of the processes that we went through to bring our corn crop to, or almost to, the grinding stone.

My early planning included harvest and drying methods that I’d used in years prior, and although I’d made cornmeal once before on a large table mounted hand mill, I assumed that a larger scale and more efficient method of grinding the corn would be needed. BR started an online search, and I scoped out the local farm supply places, antiques shops and local farming community for information on shellers and grinders.

I’d grown 45 plants of a standard yellow dried corn which was intended for coarsely ground meal, and BR had grown about 3 times that of a Oaxacan green corn which was suited for making tamales.  While working in Vermont over the month of September, I harvested my corn a few weeks early, and took it north with me.  I hung the un-husked corn to dry on a string beneath my apartment second floor deck, where they got sunlight, a breeze and were protected from rainfall.  Three weeks of this and my corn was dry and free of kernel or husk mold and pests.  Once back in Tivoli I spent an afternoon shelling the corn by hand into a plastic 4 gallon bucket.  This was somewhat tedious and rough work on my thumbs. With BR’s corn we opted to try something different.

First, drying the green corn took much longer, in part because we dried it on wire mesh tables in a barn, where there wasn’t much sunlight or airflow. Due to this we had some issues with mold and pest problems, with mice climbing up the tables. Eventually we husked the corn and placed it on a wood floor in a sunny room in his house to continue drying.  Here it dried nicely, yet given the time in the barn bore worms were able to survive and we had a few instances of them tunneling out of the corn and sneaking off, leaving a little pile of corn cob dust in their wake.

We ordered a cast aluminum sheller, which looked like a small cup without a bottom, and that made the shelling (removing the kernels from the cob) a little easier. It wasn’t perfect, kernels tended to fly about the room and it was somewhat uncomfortable to use, but saved time and joint pains later. We’re hoping to modify the sheller to make it more ergonomic for future use. Now we were ready to start milling.

I contacted Jay down at 4 Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY. He had a table mill like the one I’d used but had it connected to an exercise bike via a long rubber belt from the front wheel. Bike powered corn mill? What could be easier and quicker? I scheduled some time to use the mill, and figured modestly that it would take a few hours work. It proved to be more complicated than that.

First, while I assumed the pedal power would make quick work of the 12 gallons of kernels, it actually was very difficult.  The mill created a lot of resistance on the drive train, and since this was a single speed it took us a long time and a lot of energy to create a small amount of meal.  An added complication was that this particular mill was using grinding plates intended to mill wheat flour, so we had to pass the corn through twice, once to crack the kernels, and another pass to mill it into a fine powder.  An hour and a half of pedaling gave us about a gallon of milled corn meal.

We concluded that this would be acceptable time and labor if you had a geared bike, and the right plates on your mill, and if the bike mill was close to home. We drove 45 minutes each way to use this one.  It could be an exercise you did twice a month during the winter, and as long as you kept the kernels in a dry place it should be fine.  Storage of the ground meal may prove more fragile. Any amount of moisture or organic impurities such as dirt, oil or food scraps that get into the meal could cause it to mold.  We are experimenting with jars in the pantry and quart bags full of meal in the freezer to see what method is necessary.

For CSA or Market scale it doesn’t make much sense. The energy, time and labor would never be cost effective, and there are small-scale mills in the area that could grind the meal for you if you were growing it for sale.

An interesting project, it reminded me of the sheer volume that must be used in a cash economy to make work like this profitable, and how on the personal scale it really requires a lot of time and work to add value to vegetables that you’ve already grown. Somehow the months it took to grow the corn felt minor to the hours it will take to mill it.

That said, it is a fun project and makes for an interesting investigation into efficient ways to produce more of your own food.
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