Foraging for Fresh Food in Vermont

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foraging for fresh food
Author Peter Merrill with chaga.

Foraging for fresh food is a common Vermont pastime once the snow is gone. Just when it seems like spring won’t come at all, it arrives in a rush here in Vermont, as steel-gray skies and damp days give way to an explosion of green. Hope springs eternal as we pour through seed catalogs, map out our gardens, and tend our seedlings, all the while dreaming of the bountiful harvest to come. Unfortunately, by mid-July this dream all too often becomes a nightmare, as we realize that we are no match for the late, killing frosts, drowning rains, and interminable weeds that annually conspire to derail our gardening plans.

foraging for fresh food
Morel mushrooms.

That’s what I love about foraging—no planning, no planting—just that moment of surprise and the instant gratification of finding something in the woods that you can actually eat. Just the other day I was weeding my blueberry bushes and came across a beautiful morel mushroom. Morels come only in May, and then they’re gone, which make them even more highly prized. I spent an hour crawling around my garden on hands and knees looking for more and found one other, just enough to sauté and savor.

Foraging for fresh food brings me back to my youth and fond memories of birthday party treasure hunts and looking for Easter eggs. At a recent mushrooming class I attended, the instructor gave each of us a bag and sent us into the woods to gather as many different mushrooms as we could find. Picture two dozen people fanning out in all directions, bags in hand, many in their 60s and 70s, and you will understand how foraging can become a passion for children of all ages and a skill that is passed from generation to generation.

Sisler Builders’ Randy Pratt remembers his mother’s passion for mushrooming and honors her memory in the naming of his dogs, Shiitake and Chanterelle. Upon learning of my own interest in mushrooming, a 90-year-old friend recently bequeathed me his late wife’s extensive library of mushrooming books simply because he felt they would be more useful in my woods than on his bookshelf.

foraging for fresh food
Chanterelle mushroom.

Anyone who knows Sisler Builders carpenter Shannon Kinneson knows he’s a man of few words—unless you get him talking about hunting or mushrooming. I can remember showing Shannon a bright yellow mushroom that I had proudly misidentified as a chanterelle. The next day a plain brown bag filled with freshly picked chanterelles showed up in my mailbox, no note, no explanation. Shannon has also helped me to find and identify chaga, a woody fungus that grows on birch trees; looks like burnt charcoal, and can be steeped to make a tasty and therapeutic tea.

foraging for fresh food
Chaga on birch tree.

Sisler Builders master woodworkers, Seth Allen and Glen Waller, are also chaga fans and often have a fresh pot of tea brewing on the woodstove in the Sisler Builders woodworking shop on cold winter mornings.

Perhaps the best part about foraging for fresh food is it helps to extend our short Vermont growing season. Where I live, ramps (wild leeks) begin to appear in April followed by fiddlehead ferns and morels in May.

foraging for fresh food
Fiddlehead fern.

Chanterelles can be found all summer long, and wild blackberries begin to ripen in July. Indian cucumbers—a wild root that has the crunch of a water chestnut and the taste of a cucumber—can be found well into the fall, and chaga can be found year round, but is easiest to find once the leaves have fallen and snow is on the ground.

foraging for fresh food
Wild leeks, or ramps.

A word of caution: foraging for fresh food is not without its risks. Destroying Angel, Angel of Death, Death Cap, and The Sickener aren’t video game villains, but some of the mushrooms that can make you sick or worse. At the end of our mushrooming class, we spread the mushrooms we had collected onto a table. Our instructor selected one and said, “If you eat this, you’ll feel sick for three days, then fine for three days, and then you’ll die.” My rule of thumb is forget about the guide books and only eat what you pick after someone you trust has identified it and is willing to eat it with you.

This article is by Peter Merrill, a former employee of Sisler Builders.

Heat Pump Technology – the Way of the Future

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Heat pump technologyNick Sisler believes that air-source heat pump technology is the way of the future. Sisler, co-founder and engineer at Ekotrope, is one of a growing number of experts in the energy, building, heating, and environmental fields. “By allowing us to heat with clean renewal energy generated by photovoltaics, wind turbines, or a hydro plant, electric heating will be an important and necessary step in cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” Sisler says.

Mike D’Muhala, energy division manager at Sisler Builders, is also on board with heat pump technology. Hearing him explain concepts like heat of vaporization, coefficient of performance, compression, joules, and absolute zero makes you wish you’d paid more attention in physics class. Even when the explanation is put in simple terms (“just an air conditioner running backwards” and “the same technology as a refrigerator”), it still feels like there must be magic involved in heating a home by extracting heat from cold outside air, even when it’s below zero.

Whether it’s physical or mystical, it’s economical: newer heat pump technology can provide much lower cost heating, cooling, short payback of investment, and lower carbon emissions.

A primer on heat pump technology

The Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that when two things of different temperatures approach each other, the hot thing cools and the cold thing heats up. This natural law has been used for cooling for decades, most notably in the form of refrigerators and air conditioners.

Essentially, an air source heat pump takes the heat out of ambient outside air (there is heat in outside air, even when it’s well below zero) by passing a chemical refrigerant though coils outside. As the liquid refrigerant heats, it becomes a vapor (just like boiling water). This hot vapor is then forced through a compressor (using electricity) to further raise its temperature. It is then pumped through coils inside the home, where the heat is released. As the vapor cools (releases its heat) it condenses back into liquid refrigerant, and the cycle repeats itself.

What’s new in heat pump technology?

For some time, ground source (geothermal) heat pumps have been transferring the nearly constant temperature of the earth into dwellings to heat and/or cool them. Often, though, installation costs for these systems can be high. In warmer climates, air source heat pumps have also been used effectively.

Now, thanks to technology improvements, better (and more environmentally benign) refrigerants, and – ironically – relatively low electricity prices, air source heat pumps are invading Vermont. In 2014, the Vermont legislature passed a bill that will have the state’s efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, consider reversing its traditional mission of reducing electricity consumption. As they state, “. . . in some instances, there is a strong economic and environmental case to be made for using more electricity, not less. Take the case of a modern air source heat pump. This efficient technology can help to heat a home at one-half to one-third the cost of heating systems that use propane or heating oil, while also providing significant greenhouse gas benefits.”

The benefits of air source heat pumps sometimes seem too good to be true. By one measure, called the Coefficient of Performance, air source heat pumps can provide three to five times more heat energy than they consume in electricity. Some heat pump evangelists are predicting that this efficiency will increase to 10 or more, and could revolutionize our energy future. Heat pumps also need not be just air-to-air. Air source systems are also able to heat domestic hot water, and may even integrate with or supplement traditional forced hot water heating systems. There is at least one electric utility in Vermont (Green Mountain Power) that, along with Efficiency Vermont, recognizes the value of heat pumps and is offering incentives or special rates to save even more money.

There are drawbacks, of course. Current heat pumps may not provide a whole-home heating solution. A drafty house also lowers the benefits. Performance declines as the temperature drops, and another heat source is needed for cold Vermont winters. Also, if electricity prices should increase dramatically, the economics would become less appealing.

Sisler Builders is embracing air source heat pumps, as they may fit within a custom home, and especially within their energy division. Mike D’Muhala is using his expertise and magic in providing efficiency audits and retrofits, and is including heat pump technology in the alchemy.