The Oil/Water Separator

Another do-it-yourself project for my home.

I had a lot of time to design my new home. A lot of time. And not only did I have time to think about the building and how I would use it, but I also thought a lot about the land.

The Plan — or at least the relevant part of it

I decided that I’d try to plant a small vineyard. The rolling hills on the east end of my property are well-suited for wine grapes and, after all, there is a winery less than a half mile down the road. If I did everything right and could produce some good grapes, I could sell them for supplemental income. I don’t expect to get rich and I certainly don’t want to become a winemaker, but it would be a nice way to join the agricultural community beyond my short season cherry drying work. Of course, all this is a bit in the future — 2 to 3 years, I think — but it got me thinking about features I could incorporate into my building to make it more attractive for someone who might want to buy a vineyard and start making wine.

And that’s what got me thinking about the floor drain. If there’s one thing you need when you’re making wine, it’s a place to rack the wine. Wine racking involves pumping wine out of the barrels where they’re aging, cleaning the lees (dregs) out of the barrels, sterilizing the barrels, and pumping the wine back in. The process is time consuming and labor intensive and since you’re dumping the lees and rinsing the barrels, the runoff has to go somewhere. Being able to do this indoors, in the shade, in a possibly temperature-controlled space would be a big plus for a future winemaker, making my property a bit more attractive than it otherwise might be.

As if the view and the privacy and the giant garage and the wrap-around deck weren’t enough.

Besides, I reasoned, I’d like a drain in the floor, too. It would make it possible for me to wash a car or my RV indoors or simply hose off the floor.

The Drain

I talked to the builder and we decided on a 24-foot long drain with a grate on top and pipe leading the water out the back of the building. I already had a drainage channel dug back there to take rainwater off the roof away from the building. We’d tap into that.

I went to Home Depot and bought the parts: 2 10-foot lengths and 1 4-foot length of drain channel, 12 2-foot lengths of snap-in grating, 2 10-foot lengths of plastic pipe, 3 drain channel fittings, and 1 drain channel end cap. I spent just over $500.

When the workers prepped the floor for the concrete pour at June month-end, they installed the channel and the cap. It sat above the gravel grade; the concrete would be poured around it. They covered the grate with duct tape to prevent concrete from getting in. And then they poured.

Pouring Concrete around the Drain
In this shot, the drain channel divides the poured concrete from the unpoured gravel floor. The concrete is basically as thick as the drain channel is high.

Finishing around the Drain
You can barely see the drain in this shot; they used silver duct tape that really blends in with the concrete color.

Finishing took effort. The drain runs down the center of a 24 x 48 foot space. The front, back, and sides needed to slope down gently to the drain so if water got into that space, it would eventually end up in the drain. I was told that the slope would not be steep and that was fine with me. I didn’t expect to use it very often anyway.

The Drain in my Floor
Here’s the drain looks like today, although it’s actually longer than what you see here. The white “stain” is from me hosing off my tile saw; some of the water came back into the building and went where it’s supposed to go: into the drain. That’ll wash away the next time I use the hose.

Later, when the concrete was dry, I peeled off the duct tape. I even took out a hose and hosed down the floor to watch the water flow into the drain. I walked around the back of the building and watched the water move away. Cool.

The Oil/Water Separator

There was a bit more to the drain than just the drain itself. Because the drain was in the floor of a garage space, it needed an oil/water separator. That’s a contraption (for lack of a better word) that prevents oil that might wash away from vehicles from getting into the ground. Instead, it’s trapped and, when enough has accumulated, can be cleaned out.

Before buying the drain parts, I did some research. I found a very simple oil/water separator that I thought I could make myself. It was basically a container with a water inlet from the drain and outlet to the drainage ditch. Inside the container were two baffles or dividers. One was short but went to the bottom of the container; sludge would gather between the inlet and that first baffle. The other was short but went nearly to the top of the container with space beneath it. The water would move through there but the oil, which floats, would stay at the top. The water would then go through the discharge outlet, clean.

Oil/Water Separator
Here’s the design I found on the Web.

Box Diagram
Here’s a diagram of the box. I didn’t buy the grate, mostly because I wanted it completely covered; I don’t want to be fishing dead rodents out of oily sludge.

I sent this image to the plans inspector to see what he thought. He agreed that it would do the job. I suggested making it out of a heavy-duty plastic toolbox. He said that wasn’t heavy-duty enough.

It took a while to figure out what I could use as the container. It was Tanya who suggested that I go to H2 Pre-Cast near Wenatchee Airport. I sat down with the sales guy and showed him my drawing. He showed me concrete boxes on his computer screen. I spent $70 for a small one with a concrete lid.

The Concrete Box
They used a forklift to load the box onto my truck for a reason — it’s very heavy.

When I realized I how heavy it was, I rushed home to get there before the crew working on my building went home for the day. I let them use their forklift to get it off my truck. They stowed it in the building. Later, when they’d gone for the day, I used the forklift to move it to the back of the building so it would be out of the way.

When the concrete was poured, the box was waiting for the rest of the installation: digging a hole for the box, moving it in, and putting in the baffles. That was my job — and I had no idea how I was going to do it.

The Concrete Solution

I thought about how I would do this for almost a month. I talked to friends. My friend Bob suggested using the concrete pavers I already had to build the dividers. He had a masonry saw he thought could do the job. Because the interior of the box was smaller on the bottom than the top, if we cut the pavers just the right size they should slip into place. We could then use a cement paste to sort of “glue” them in.

It sounded good to me.

In the meantime, I had to get the box into the ground. That meant digging a hole in compacted earth. Fortunately the earth there has very few rocks and I have a very heavy digging stick. I made short work of the job one morning before it got hot and the spot was still in the shade.

Of course, I still needed to get the box in the hole. And I couldn’t budge the box.

The solution came on a motorcycle: my friend Mike. Looking for an early morning destination with his dirt bike, he showed up at 6 AM on Tuesday. After giving him hot coffee and a bacon and egg breakfast, I led him around to the back of the building to the little moving problem I’d discussed with him on the phone. Together, we knocked out the holes on either side of the box — guess who I was thinking of as I banged away with a heavy hammer on one of the punch outs? — and lowered it into the hole. Then we connected a cut length of pipe to the pipe coming out of the building to make the inlet and used the rest of the pipe as an outlet.

Now I was ready for Bob and his masonry saw.

But it was Tuesday and Bob works 10-hour days during the week. The soonest he’d be able to come would be Friday — if he didn’t have something else on his plate for his only weekday off. And I’d been thinking about other solutions.

Like concrete.

I figured I could make 2 concrete forms for the inside of the box, mix up some concrete — I already had portland cement and sand — and pour the concrete into the forms.

And that’s exactly what I did on Wednesday. I cut some 1-1/2 inch foam insulation sheets I had lying around into 4 dividers. I positioned the dividers for the pour, being sure to place more foam under the dividers on the outlet side to leave a space under the baffle. I used scrap lumber to hold everything in place. It looked extremely makeshift.

Foam dividers are held in place by pieces of scrap lumber.

Then I mixed up some concrete in a big paint bucket. I tried 4 parts portland cement + 4 parts sand + 4 parts water but the mixture — once I got it mixed up enough — seemed too thin. So I added 2 more parts of cement. The resulting blend looked like it might be thick enough to stay within the forms.

So I poured it.

Concrete immediately began leaking from the first form. But only for a moment; it seemed to sort of clot itself, like blood on a wound. So I kept pouring. I poured both forms, stopping the inset side form about 2/3 of the way up and bringing the outlet side form (with the foam beneath it) within a few inches of the top of the box. Then I got down on my hands and knees, scooped up the leaked concrete and slapped it against the walls where the pipes came in and out. I did the best I could to use all the concrete in the baffle forms and around the pipes. It looked awful when I was done. So did my hands.

After the Pour
Here’s the big picture after the pour. You can see the box lid standing up against the side of the building as well as one of the pavers Bob wanted to cut for baffles.

I cleaned up and resisted the temptation, for the rest of the day, to pull off the forms. Instead, I used a level and a shovel to make sure the outlet pipe sloped down. I put the paver on top of it and closed up its mouth with some hardware cloth to keep the rodents out. (Around here, you don’t wonder if the mice will get in. You assume they will and take preventative measures to keep them out.) Then I buried both pipes and brought the dirt around the outside of the box.

On Thursday, I could resist no longer. In all honesty, I didn’t think it would work. I couldn’t imagine why freshly poured concrete would adhere to the concrete walls of the box. But it did. As I pulled the forms out, cracking and cutting them as I worked, I revealed the smooth walls of my new concrete baffles. With a little cleaning up, it would be all ready for inspection.

Finished Separator
Here’s my finished oil/water separator after cleaning it up a bit. The inlet from the drain in the building is on the right; the outlet is n the left. Although you can’t see it, there’s space beneath the left side baffle.

Inspection and Test

I was hoping I’d be around when the inspector stopped by so we could test it together, but I was on a charter flight at an orchard near Othello. He called me to get access to the building, which is secured by a keyless lock. He asked me to remind him what he was supposed to inspect.

“The oil/water separator and the framing,” I told him. “If you want to run the hose over to the drain in the building to test the oil/water separator, you can. Just don’t add oil unless you have to.”

“Oh, I already looked at that,” he told me. “It’s fine.”

And that’s that.

Of course, I wanted to test it. I wanted to make sure the water drained out properly.

Besides, who doesn’t like playing with flowing water?

So I ran a hose into my RV garage and laid it down by the drain. Then I turned on the water and ran around to the back of the building. I’d just managed to turn on my phone’s video camera when the water arrived.

Here’s the test. The water was only turned on partway — I have excellent water pressure. But the outlet drain kept up with the inflow of water and none of the water went over the top of the outlet side baffle.


What I like best about my solution for the oil/water separator is that other than the concrete box, I already had everything I needed to get the job done: foam for forms, scrap wood for supports, cement, sand, hardware cloth. So rather than spend over $1,000 for one of the many of the pre-made solutions out there, I got the job done for about $70. You gotta like that.

One More Thing

Of course, not everything could go perfectly smoothly.

Wrong Lid
Duh-oh! These two pieces were sitting around here for two months and I never noticed I had the wrong size lid.

When I was cleaning up the area after the test, I put the lid on the box. That’s when I discovered that I had the wrong size lid.

Well, at least I can lift it to return it for the right one.

Viddler Content Being Pulled

I guess I deserve that for putting so many eggs in one questionable basket.

Back in 2008, I discovered Viddler, a site for sharing videos. For some reason I’ve long since forgotten, I decided that it was a better way to host my blog’s video content. I embraced it and uploaded dozens of videos to Viddler, embedding them in blog posts. I even went a step farther and wrote articles explaining to other WordPress uses how they could embed their Viddler videos in their blog posts.

Silly me.

Earlier this year, Viddler pulled the plug on all of its free accounts. Because I hadn’t used the service for so long, they did not have an up-to-date email address for me and I did not get notification of the change. As a result, I was unable to retrieve copies of my videos from their service. Now, if I want them, I have to pay a fee.

Yes, I have to pay a fee to get copies of my own videos from their service.

Needless to say, I’m not paying.

Understand that I don’t make a penny on this blog. I removed all the advertising years ago and don’t even ask for donations anymore. My hosting fees are low enough that I don’t mind footing the bill for that, but I simply can’t pay for additional services — like those offered for a fee now by Viddler. I need to stick to low-cost or free alternatives for anything related to my blog.

No More ViddlerA total of 65 of my blog posts contain references to Viddler and/or embedded Viddler content — including “video blog posts” I was creating back in 2009. I’ll be spending some time today editing these posts to remove the bad embedding code. I suspect I’ll wind up simply deleting a lot of these posts in their entirety.

There are two valuable lessons to be learned here:

  • Keep copies of all of your content. I know I have copies of the “lost videos” somewhere, but they’re likely packed with the rest of my office stuff. Or maybe they aren’t. Who knows? The point is, uploading them to a service isn’t necessarily any way to assure that they’ll always be available.
  • Stick to services that aren’t likely to change payment policies. YouTube has become the go-to service for sharing video for a reason: it’s free and it will remain free forever. In addition, being a part of a big company like Google makes it unlikely that it’ll shut down or be sold anytime soon. New services spring up all the time and they often seem like good alternatives for one reason or another. But will they stick around forever? And maintain their current cost policies?

At this point, anyone who has been involved in technology for at least 10 years can likely list several online services that have disappeared or changed policies. Viddler is one of the latest. It’s unfortunate that I relied on them the way I did.

A(nother) Full Day

Sometimes I can really pack it in.

Yesterday was one of those days when there’s simply no rest. Here’s a quick rundown.

A Natural Alarm Clock

I woke at 3:50 AM. It was the sound of three drops of rain hitting my RV roof that woke me. This was an unusual sound that I hadn’t heard in weeks and it took a moment for my sleeping mind to register why it was important.


I’m on contract to dry cherries.

I was wide awake in a flash, reaching for my iPad, summoning the radar. Yes, it was drizzling on me, but was it raining on my orchards 5 miles to the west?

Not yet, the radar told me. But there was rain in the area.

I lounged in bed for a while, reading, catching up on Facebook crap (which I’m convinced has become a sick addiction for me, since I get very little pleasure out of it), and checking my calendar for the day. I had three things scheduled: a meeting with my earth-moving guy about the ground work for my utility connections at 7:30 AM, a charter flight at 8:30 AM, and an invitation to help a friend pack Rainier cherries at 10:00 AM.

But the rain made things a lot less solid. Getting called to dry cherries took precedence over anything else I might have to do.

Earth-Moving Plans

Jeff Parks, the guy who had installed my septic system last year and did all the earth work in preparation for my building, arrived at 7:30 sharp. By then, it was drizzling again.

I outlined what I needed and he suggested ways to get the job done. That’s one of the things I like about Jeff — if you want to do something one way and he has a better way, not only will he suggest it, but he’ll explain why it’s better. He’ll also take the time to go over the pros and cons of the different materials that can be used.

In my situation, I need to run a water line from the city water source to my building and my shed, an electric conduit from my transformer box to my building and my shed, and a septic system line from the takeout near the building to the building. I also wanted to install a second takeout near the shed so I could create a complete RV hookup there for guests. I wasn’t in a hurry to get this done, but I did hope to have it finished by August month-end, which was fine for Jeff.

We decided that I’d buy the materials with a shopping list he provided. I already had much of the conduit and pipe I needed. He’d get back to me with a solid estimate.

The Charter

My charter client knew I was a cherry drying pilot and called while Jeff was there to make sure we were still on for the flight. I told her we were, then told her that I’d call her cell phone if I needed to cancel.

But I didn’t have to cancel. At 8:20, I said goodbye to Jeff, locked Penny in the RV, and hopped into the helicopter. Ten minutes later, I was shutting down at Pangborn Airport across the river, ready to greet my passengers.

My passengers were two fruit buyers from the midwest that my client was entertaining during a visit to the orchards. I’d done short tours for a handful of the client’s guests last year. This year there were only two of them and the client didn’t mind my one-hour minimum. I’d pick them up at Wenatchee Airport, take them on a scenic flight around the area, and drop them off at Quincy Airport where my client would be waiting.

My passengers were pleasant men who really seemed to enjoy the flight. They asked me to show them a new orchard being planted north of the airport on some old wheat fields — I didn’t even know it was up there! Then we headed down river, past the Rock Island dam. I pointed out the features now visible due to the low water levels. (The Wanapum Dam is still being repaired so the lake level is extremely low and closed to the public.) We saw Crescent Bar, the Gorge Amphitheater, Cave B Inn and Winery, and Sunland before turning and heading back over Frenchman’s Coulee, Quincy Lakes, and Quincy. One of the passengers obviously knew the area very well because he kept pointing out various orchards and packing/storage facilities around us. After 45 minutes, I landed at Quincy where their ride was waiting. The last 15 minutes of their hour would get me back to Wenatchee.

Packing Cherries

Of course, I didn’t go back to Wenatchee Airport — or home. Instead, I flew to the orchard where my friends Donn and Kathryn were using their cherry packing line for the very first time. The reason I flew instead of driving there was because there was still rain possible and it would have taken 30-40 minutes for me to drive home (or to the airport for that matter) if I were called out to fly. By flying there, the helicopter was only 5 minutes away so I’d be able to respond quickly if called.

The Cherry Packing Line
Packing cherries can be labor-intensive, too.

The packing line was set up in a new building near their house on the orchard. There was a huge walk-in refrigerator where cherries picked the previous day and that morning had been stored. Then a conveyor belt that would take cherries from an ice water bath past quality control people who’d pick out the bad ones. Finally, the cherries came out on the far end where they fell into plastic-lined boxes.

Cherries Dropping into Box
At the end of the line, the cherries dropped into a box.

I shot this little video to show how the cherries moved down the line.

The quality control people worked at a feverish pace, picking out cherries that weren’t “perfect.” They checked for things like size, color, splits, bird pecks, and mold/fungus. Even stems — if a cherry didn’t have a stem attached, it was rejected. (I ate a lot of those.) The line moved quickly; we probably packed at least 10 pounds per minute.

My job was to work with Kathryn to fill the boxes, make sure they weighed 16 pounds (15 pounds of cherries plus the weight of the box and excess water), close them up, and put them on a pallet. The trickiest part was pulling one box away while putting an empty one in its place. It required the two of us to work in harmony to prevent cherries coming off the line from falling on the floor. It took us a few tries, but we finally got it working perfectly. We joked that she was Lucy and I was Ethel.

Drying Cherries

It started to rain while I was there. Then the inevitable phone call from one of my two clients still on contract. Could I dry, please? Fortunately, my helicopter was parked right across the street from the orchard. I excused myself from Kathryn and Donn and walked down the hill to where I was parked. On the way, I ran into the orchard owner. I told him I’d been helping with the cherry packing in the new shed and expected rain so I’d flown over.

I was airborne when the second client called. I was now responsible for flying over about 90 acres of cherries — about my limit for the 2-1/2 hours allotted.

I called Mike, my backup pilot. Although he was off-contract, he was in the Quincy area and could, theoretically, fly up to help out. But he was having engine trouble with his motorhome and needed to sort that out. So I tackled it on my own.

I flew until I was low on fuel — remember, I’d burned an hour’s worth that morning — then refueled at the airport 5 minutes away and flew until I was done. I explain what cherry drying is all about in other blog posts; click the cherry drying tag to learn more.

Back to Packing

No Swimming
I don’t know…do you think swimming is allowed here? Sky looks nasty, huh?

Afterwards, I landed back near Donn and Kathryn’s house, but this time on a dam around a reservoir in the orchard. I walked down to the packing shed where they were all still working. Kathryn took one look at me and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“I was hoping you’d ask,” I replied.

She brought me into the house and let me loose on salad fixings everyone else had had a while earlier. I made myself lunch and ate it alone while she went back down to work. Then, after a quick trip to the loo, I went back out to help.

Other helpers had taken my previous job so I filled in where needed, giving people breaks as they needed them. In the end, I wound up right where I’d started with Kathryn beside me. That’s where we were when the last few cherries came down the line. We all cheered. They’d packed 420 15-pound boxes — over 3 tons of cherries.

We cleaned up immediately. Extra cherries were handed out. The packing line ladies left. I passed on the cherries, preferring to come back later in the week to pick my own from the same trees — pickers aren’t always thorough. I’d get some blueberries that day, too. Kathryn invited me to join them for dinner in town later on. She’d text me. I looked forward to it, but not nearly as much as I looked forward to taking it easy at home.

When I flew off, the refrigerated truck that would take the cherries to Seattle had just arrived.

A Short Rest

At home, Penny the Tiny Dog was happy to see me. She always is.

I took it easy for a while. I made some soup and watched a documentary about abandoned cities on Netflix.

Kathryn called to tell me they’d decided on Pybus Bystro at 6:30. I told her I’d come if the weather held.

A friend called and I spent a half hour chatting with him. Then I noticed the weather was changing again. One look at the radar and I cut the call short.

I went outside and topped off the helicopter’s fuel tanks with 100LL from the tank on my truck.

I texted Kathryn and told her I wouldn’t be joining them after all.

More Cherry Drying

My other client called first this time. It was about 6 PM when I launched. The second call came while I was enroute.

I hadn’t gotten very far when it started raining. Again.

The orchards are only 5 minutes away by air. I settled in over the trees of the big orchard and was at work for less than 15 minutes when I decided to track the flight with GPSTrack.

I was only 16 minutes into the logged part of the flight when it started to rain. Hard.

I flew over to a friend’s house and landed in his driveway, knowing he was out of town. I called my two clients and told them that I’d wait until it stopped or 7 PM, whichever came sooner. If I re-started after 7, I’d never finish before it got dark. Even then, it was iffy.

It was still raining at 6:55 PM when I started back up.

I speed-dried. I knew I’d never get it all done thoroughly, but I figured I could get most (or all) of it done if I was a bit less thorough. The result wasn’t as good, but was better than leaving 20 or 30 acres completely uncovered. Partial coverage was better than no coverage. Besides, rain was expected overnight and I was likely to be called out first thing in the morning.

Speed Drying
In speed drying, I go down every third aisle instead of every second. Sometimes I do every third one way and every second the other. Less coverage is better than no coverage. Keep in mind that this satellite image is three years old; the orchard configuration is a bit different these days.

I got through all of the big orchard and one of the two smaller orchard’s blocks. By then, it was getting dark. The sun had set around 8:45 PM and clouds on the western horizon made it darker than it would normally be. My landing zone at home wasn’t lighted and I really didn’t want to land in the dark. I also didn’t want to hover five feet over cherry trees in hilly terrain in semi-darkness with a windscreen full of raindrops. So I let the last orchard block go.

It was drizzling when I headed home.


The helicopter was lit up like a Christmas light parade float on the flight home. Strobe light (required during flight), navigation lights (required after sunset), landing light, pulsing lights on my skid shoes. I wouldn’t be surprised if neighbors called me in as a UFO. But it felt good to get on the ground, especially since I knew I was done for the night.

I shut down, let Penny out for a run, and then went in. My friend Bob called while I was pouring a glass of wine. We chatted for a while and I invited him to join me Thursday evening to pick cherries and blueberries. It was after 10 PM when he reminded me that I’d probably be up early.

I finished my wine and went to bed, exhausted.

It had been a very full day.

They Call the Wind Maria

A blog post about pollinating corn with a helicopter.

The call came on Monday from someone who works with a very large agricultural manufacturer. Do I do corn pollination with my helicopter?

The only thing I knew about pollination by helicopter was the spreading of purchased pollen using a special piece of equipment installed in a helicopter. It was a two-person job — one to fly, one to measure out the pollen — and I didn’t have the equipment or experience. I’d actually looked into at the request of one of my cherry pilots this past winter, but when he didn’t seem interested in moving forward and I suspected I might need special certification for aerial application, I let it drop.

Besides, I didn’t realize helicopters were used for corn pollination. I thought helicopters just spread pollen over fruit orchards.

But this new potential client didn’t want me to apply pollen from the air. He wanted me to fly over the cornfields in such a way that the pollen would get blown about and do its fertilization thing.

The way he described it, it didn’t sound much different from the kind of flying I do when I dry cherries. Sure, I told him. I could do that.

The Field Guy

After sending the company a copy of my W-9 for billing purposes — big companies always want the paperwork first — I got a call from the field guy. We’ll call him Bill. Bill and I set up a meeting at the White Trail Produce farm stand in Quincy. It was a perfect place to meet, despite the fact it was an hour drive from my place in Malaga. White Trails makes the best peach shakes.

I was drinking a peach shake with Penny on her leash when Bill drove up. Although we’d never met, I easily guessed it was him — he had a plastic chemical tank on the back of his pickup. We sat down in the shade and talked about the work.

Corn Tassel
Wikipedia image “Corntassel 7095″ by Spedona Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons;

The problem was this: as the corn was growing, a heat wave had set in. For the past nearly 2 weeks, the daytime highs had been getting into the high 90s and low 100s. The corn had formed tassels at the top — that’s the male part of the plant that produces pollen — and each day the packets of pollen were opening, ready for the pollen to be dispersed by the wind.

Corn Silk
Wikipedia image “Cornsilk 7091″ by Original uploader was Pollinator at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Teratornis using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Unfortunately, the extremely hot weather was killing the pollen within a few hours and the lack of wind was making it nearly impossible for the pollen to reach the corn silk — that’s the female part of the plant growing lower on the stalk — while it was still viable.

Bill’s corn fields needed wind — on demand.

That’s where I came in. They’d call me out to fly low over the corn fields at the time when the most pollen was being released by the tassels — likely between 8 AM and 10 AM. I’d fly back and forth, making sure all the plants got a good blowing. Once the pollen was flying around, gravity and mother nature would do the rest.

That was the plan, anyway.

Bill gave me four maps, each of which had at least a dozen or two corn field locations plotted on it. Each had a different number. They were scattered throughout an area that was probably 50 square miles. He said that each field was on its own schedule, so they would never all be done at once. Instead, only a handful would need to be done on a day.

That worked fine for me. I have a one-hour minimum for flights at my charter rate and would be spending at least 30 minutes round trip for travel time, which they would cover. If I could do two or three fields on a flight, it would likely come out to 90 minutes, which looked good for my bottom line and gave them more bang for their buck. Win-win.

I was booked with a photo flight in Seattle at dawn on Wednesday morning, so my first available day was Thursday. Bill said he’d call Wednesday night with a plan.

The Flight

Bill called Wednesday evening. I pulled out the maps. He listed two fields in Quincy and one in George. He asked me to be at the first Quincy field at 9:30 AM. He’d be on the ground, watching what I did. If I needed to make an adjustment in speed, altitude, or distance between passes, he’d call and let me know. Because the second field in Quincy was so close, he’d probably watch that one, too.

We hung up and I looked up the fields on Google Maps, knowing that the plantings in the satellite view might not match what was actually on the ground. I found the cross streets and noted the shape of the fields. I highlighted the fields on my maps.

Corn Field 1
The first field was easy; all corn, no obstacles. I came in from the southeast and went back and forth to the north.

At 9:15 AM Thursday, I took off and headed to Quincy. After following Road 9 instead of Road 8 for about a mile past the field location, I doubled back and zeroed in on the first field. Bill’s truck was in the southwest corner. As I came in to make my first pass about 10 rows in, he got out of his truck to watch.

It took me a few minutes to get the hang of it; my brain wanted to dry cherries. But this was higher: about 15 feet rather than 5. It was also faster: 20-24 miles per hour rather than 5 to 10 miles per hour.

I looked back on my first few passes to see my coverage and realized that every 20 or so rows would be perfect — the corn was really blowing at least 20 feet on either side of the helicopter. (The corn rows were planted 22 inches apart.) I was probably on my third pass before I got the feel for where I should be and how fast I should be moving. I was on my fifth pass when I started making baby ag turns — not much more was needed at the speed I was operating.

Bill watched. I kept expecting my phone to ring, but it didn’t. When I got near the north end of the field, I realized I had an onlooker there, too.

Corn Field 2
The second field had wires just outside the field. I came in from the north over the wires, circled around, and went up and down the rows. This satellite image doesn’t show the field as it appeared during the flight, of course.

I got through the first field, which was the largest, in about 15 minutes. The second field was right across the road. The were wires on both ends of it, but they weren’t that close to the corn. I made my turns inside the field so there was no need to go anywhere near the wires. Bill repositioned to the north end of that field to watch. When I was nearly done, I realized he was on the phone. Again, I expected my phone to ring, but it remained quiet.

Corn Field 3
This is the last field, which was fully planted with corn. This image doesn’t show the irrigation pivot, but if you look closely enough, you should be able to see the wires on the west side.

I finished up and headed to George. I found the field a lot easier than I expected to, but didn’t like what I saw. Not only did it have an operating irrigation pivot in it, which would force me to fly higher, over the pivot arm when I reached it, but there were what we call “Bonneville” power lines — the tall towers with multiple high-tension power lines between them. The power lines definitely crossed the field. To cover the corn, I’d have to fly under the wires very close to the tops of the plants. Suspecting that I might do more harm than good to the plants — and possibly to the helicopter — if I attempted to fly under the wires, I did only 2/3 of the field before heading out.

There was a house on the north side of the field and about five people had watched me work. I was only there about 5 minutes.

I called Bill and told him I’d finished, what part of the George field I’d missed, and why I hadn’t done it all. He seemed to understand. He also seemed very pleased. I wondered whether he could see the pollen dust on the plant silk. I hoped he’d have some kind of quick confirmation that our “wind on demand” scheme had worked.

I flew back and parked at home. I’d logged just 1.1 hours of flight time.

Repeat Performance?

Learn more.

Want to learn more about how corn pollination works? Read this.

And the title of this post isn’t something I dreamed up. It’s from this song, which was covered by Robert Goulet and others. And maybe — just maybe — it inspired Jim Hendrix to write this song.

Will I do this again? I hope so. It was kind of fun and a welcome break from cherry drying and passenger work.

But it all depends on the age of the corn and the weather. To need me, three things must happen at once:

  • The corn must be ready to pollinate.
  • It must be more than 85°F.
  • There can’t be much wind.

If all three of this conditions apply, my phone might ring with a request to fly in the morning.

I’ll be waiting for it. I need to practice my ag turns.

Repurposing Old Bee Hive Boxes

Reuse, recycle.

A few months back, my beekeeping friend James told me he’d was able to get a bunch of used deep hive boxes for about $5 each. Knowing I used deep boxes — he uses only mediums — he offered them to me. I asked about the condition and he admitted that they were pretty beat up but could probably be usable with just a cleaning and fresh coat of paint. They were heavy-duty commercial boxes — the kind the migratory beekeepers use. I told him I’d take 10.

Beat Up Hive Boxes
These hive boxes are a little more beat up than I was expecting them to be.

I picked them up a while later. Although structurally sound, they were very beat up. James showed me one that he’d painted and it didn’t look half bad. Since the price was right and I had plenty of paint, I took them.

I spent one morning scraping the paint off four of them with a wire brush and then repainting them. They did look much better. But when I slipped some frames into one of them, I realized that they weren’t consistently sized; the frames fit too loosely and would require careful placement to prevent them from falling into the box.

This is my garden hive, so-called because I placed it near my garden. It was built with two of the used boxes and it’s pretty clear that they simply don’t fit the way they need to.

But it wasn’t until I placed the first box of frames onto a hive bottom — for a swarm capture I needed to permanently house — that I realized the problem couldn’t be solved with just a coat of paint. The top and bottom edges of the boxes were rough. This caused gaps between the bottom and the box and between stacked boxes. The gaps were large enough for light and air to pass through. That meant the bees would be busy filling all those gaps with propolis, thus gluing them together.

I used the four I’d painted and found the same problem with all of them. Although I didn’t want to invest more money in beekeeping equipment than I had to, it was clear that these boxes would not be suitable for long-term use. They’d need to be replaced.

I placed an order for five new boxes from Mann Lake, figuring that I’d begin swapping them out on my next inspections.

But what to do with the unneeded boxes?

The answer was in my garden, which was growing wild in the planters I’d bought and made: more movable planters.

Understand that bee hive boxes do not have tops or bottoms. All they have are sides. While I could simply place a box on the ground, fill it with soil, and plant something in it, that wouldn’t make it movable. It also wouldn’t keep the moles (or voles or whatever I have making holes on my property) from digging in from underneath to kill whatever was growing in the box.

So I did the same thing I did for my large pallet planters — I lined the bottom with wire mesh. I had a large piece I’d been using on the door for my chicken yard that I clipped off, cut to size, and lay inside of each of the three boxes I painted for my trial run. I used a staple gun to fasten the wire to the sides of the boxes. Then I placed the first box in position, put a layer of stray on the bottom, right over the wire, and topped it off with some potting soil. I planted corn in the box, covered the soil with some more straw (to discourage digging by birds), watered it, and left it.

The corn wasn’t supposed to germinate for 8-10 days, but within 6 days, it was pushing its way up between the pieces of straw.

Beehive Planters
A row of the beehive planters. You can see the corn poking up through the straw in the closest box.

I lined up the other two boxes on the ground beside the first. I planted corn in one and onions in the other. When the heat breaks, I’ll prep the remaining three boxes, although I may not plant anything in them until next year.

What I like most about these movable planters is that they’re making it possible for me to have a garden this year, before I’m ready to commit to a location for the garden. And while the bottoms might not be the most sturdy, they do make it possible for plant roots to reach through, into the soil below.

I just hope I didn’t plant the corn too late for a good harvest.