Exploring low-tech food dehydration to increase profits on small farms

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,915.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Tanya Tolchin
Jug Bay Market Garden

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms


  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Energy: solar energy
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, marketing management, value added
  • Pest Management: row covers (for pests), sanitation
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, employment opportunities

    Proposal summary:

    Thousands of dollars of fresh produce goes to waste on our farm each year because we do not have the time or resources to get it to the market fast enough. Tomatoes are the crop most commonly lost to waste on our farm. We also are unable to sell all our basil, cilantro and other herbs before they are no longer marketable. Food dehydration offers a promising solution because products can be dried and sold as a value added product at farmers markets, restaurants and stores. Aside from drying tomatoes, we hope to create some unique value added products like dried herbs mixes and kale chips. Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay region have trouble drying herbs and other products outside or inside tobacco barns due to high humidity and the resulting mold. Most large commercial scale food dehydrators are cost prohibitive for small farmers. Commercial dryers begin at $20,000 with high energy costs to run. While these dryers are attractive and might be viable for a farm cooperative to buy and operate, they are not the right scale for our farm. Most of the smaller models that are designed for homeowners and hunters are too small to dry the larger quantities produced on a family farm and have other problems. We hope to find an effective low-tech and low cost option for drying a variety of herbs and vegetables in our very humid climate. I hope to create a model that can be replicated at other farms in the region. We believe that the drier will open many marketing options, reduce wasted produce and has the potential to bring value to crops that are not otherwise marketable such as dried flowers and grasses.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Phase 1 Building 2 Dryers: Winter 2012-2013

    The first part of the project will be the construction of two dryers, one passive solar and one with an electric heating element. The passive solar model will follow UC Davis passive solar stack dryer which we will build this winter with the help of volunteers. This dryer will be easy to construct on the farm. The second dryer will utilize electric heat and a fan. It will be more expensive to run but may be a necessary back up during damp conditions.

    Phase 2: Testing the Dryers: Summer 2013
    During the summer, we will test the dryers using 6 farm products including sungold tomatoes, rosemary, sweet potatoes, basil and kale. We will compare the results of the two dryers to determine what is the best fit for our farm and other farms in the region.

    We will record the results of the products by
    • recording the weight of the product before and after drying in an excel sheet
    • taste, we will utilize the help of volunteers to rate the taste on a 1-5 scale.
    • We will utilize the help of our chef consultant to review color and appearance and take photographs of the products to share with others.
    • We will record our impressions on the relative ease of using each dryer.

    We will test our dryer in various crops and weather conditions throughout the summer and fall seasons and keep careful records of the results. Based on University of Maryland Extension advice, we may add laboratory testing if necessary to determine dryness of certain products, such as tomatoes, to prevent mold.

    Outreach: University of Maryland Extension staff will be involved in the entire project. We will share the results widely with our regional sustainable farming community and invite interested farmers to visit and learn about our dehydration methods. I will present at the winter meeting of Maryland Food and Farmers Association (MOFFA) and possibly at the winter Future Harvest CASA conference. I will hold one educational farm field day which I will promote through regional farming publications to share the dryers with other farmers and consumers.

    In addition, ATTRA is interested in helping to share the results of this research nationwide. According to Andrew Pressman, NCAT Agriculture Specialist at ATTRA, they may be able to share the project results in an upcoming publication about appropriate technology for market gardens, webinars and other educational programming.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.