I remember the first time I saw a farmer using a washing machine as a salad spinner. I had been farming for just a short while and I thought it was just the best idea ever.
I found this to be such a great example of using low-cost transferrable technology. Washing machines are generally very reliable, can be bought second hand for next to nothing, and hold a huge volume of product. What a piece of time- and cost-saving genius.
So several years down the road, now operating my own microgreens business, it was time to upgrade from my big orange salad spinner to a machine. I was so excited to give up my Luddite tendencies and outsource the duties of my disproportionally stronger right arm to an automatic spinning machine.
I was curious about what commercial products existed for exclusively spinning greens, and found some interesting designs, including a motor designed especially for the big orange salad spinner. However, everything was atrociously expensive, so I decided a washing machine was the way to go.
Being quite thrifty by nature, I headed down to the used appliance shop and took a look around to see what sizes and shapes of machines they had to choose from. I was looking for something on the smaller side that was top-loading, in good shape, and had simple, easy-to-use controls (i.e. it had to have an option to select only the spin cycle). After ten minutes of perusing the selection, I headed to the service desk to get some advice (a very difficult thing for a man in an appliance shop to do, I might add).
I made a bit of small talk with the service technician and then told him I was looking for a machine that would only be used for the spin cycle. He kind of gave me a puzzled look, a look it seemed to me, he gave a lot in his line of work, and so I explained to him its purpose.
“I’ll be using it to spin produce,” I told him. “After we harvest and wash our produce, we spin it to get it dry.”
“And you’re going to spin it in a washing machine?” he asked, with a hint of something more to come in his voice.
“Yup,” I replied. “It’s quite common in farming. We’ll give the machine a good wash and sanitize when we get it and then it will be used for just our greens.”
Somehow he managed to keep a straight face through this conversation.
“Do you have any idea the kind of things people put in their washing machines?” he said, with complete equanimity. “Blood, excrement, dirt, oil, grease… you name it, all on a regular basis. You can’t put food in there.”
“Well, we’ll be giving it a good clean before we use it. We’ll take the drum right out,” I replied, feeling a sudden weight bearing down upon me as the reality of this situation started to come to light.
“Can’t do it,” he replied. “You’ll never get it clean. I’ve seen so many of these things in my days and I can tell you that you don’t want to be putting food in them.”
I wanted to fight this. I wanted to argue, but I couldn’t.
“Hmm… you’re right,” I managed to stammer out. “That’s a good point.”
I’m not sure how the rest of the conversation went because I was now in a bit of a daze. And rightly so, as the “reality of this situation” did not refer only to my purchasing attempt, but rather to the fact that just about every salad green grower I knew was using a used washing machine to spin their greens.
So, I was now feeling a little embarrassed, well, a lot embarrassed, actually. First of all, I’m quite particular about hygiene, due to the nature of our products, and I pride myself on my attention to detail and a tendency to take a proactive approach to avoid situations that may compromise our product integrity. How had I not thought of this before?
I was suddenly appreciative at being able to see things now through a new lens–that of an appliance technician (and consumer). I knew the solution was simple: buy a new washing machine.
Still contemplating this situation, I have discussed my concern with fellow growers by posing this question: are we compromising the integrity of our produce by spinning it in a used washing machine?
The general response I received was that of disregard. The friends I talked to seemed to think that if they kept the interior drum of the machine clean then they were doing their due diligence. What went behind the drum was removed from the system, so to speak, and was thus not a contamination threat. The rest of the machine was cleaned thoroughly and regularly they assured me.
So I presented the situation to them in another context: You’re searching for a salad spinner yourself. You need just a small one because you are a small operation and you’re just looking for a big orange salad spinner that everyone else has (you know, everyone else with the one really strong arm). One day, you see an ad on Craigslist–
For Sale: Big orange salad spinner. Used for household laundry, including kids and adult underwear, work clothes, dish and bath towels, pet beds and occasionally shoes. Children wet the bed and get night-time nose bleeds. Well cleaned after last use. $50 firm.
Would you be rushing off to buy this salad spinner? I think not. But somehow a washing machine is different.
This new context made most of them stop to think about this situation a bit harder. I still continue to contemplate this issue myself.
What it keeps coming back to for me is three basic principles related to commercial food production: 1) maintaining product integrity from soil to customer; 2) maintaining the “pure” energy of the food we are growing (not my usual language, but it’s the best way to describe it); and 3) understanding and acknowledging the responsibility we hold as food growers selling to the public. Quite simply, using a machine–that once held substances that we generally try to keep as far away from food as possible–to process our produce that is to be eaten fresh, cannot be said to support these principles. Thus, it is inappropriate for growers to use a used washing machine for spinning their produce.
In the end we did purchase a new washing machine and we love it. It is an apartment-sized unit with a stainless steel drum and without an agitator (it’s the type with a centre cone with the fins). It holds about 6 to 8 pounds of our microgreens with each spin and has saved us countless hours of spinning. It has also helped both sides of my body become proportional again!
We still take the hygiene of this machine very seriously. After each harvest we run the machine through a wash cycle, which effectively removes debris stuck behind the drum and allows us to easily scoop it out. We also add some bleach on the first wash cycle and then run a rinse cycle to follow. The rest of the machine is also washed and sanitized with bleach. It gets this service twice each week and keeps the machine looking as good as new.
It is my hope in sharing my experience with you, that you will consider recycling that used washing machine you are using as a salad spinner and invest in a new machine to be used exclusively for your produce. The integrity of your product depends on it.