University of St. Thomas Engineering Students Develop a Brussel Sprouts Trimmer for Hmong Farmers

By Pakou Hang



BACKGROUND– Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA)

The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is an innovative, results driven, Hmong led nonprofit. We work with over 100 Hmong farmers to build intergenerational and community wealth and end racial injustices in the food and farming industries. One of the ways we help our farmers increase their sales is by providing trainings around their growing and harvesting methods, and through our food hub, aggregate their produce and selling it to other places besides the farmers markets.

In 2018 we were approached by the Engineering Department at the University of St. Thomas to submit a real life challenge that seniors in the department could work on for an end-of-the-year project. Brussels sprouts are a favorite cold crop of Minnesota consumers. In the seven years our food hub has been providing produce to the schools, restaurants and wholesale markets, brussels sprouts have been one of the top five produce requested. But the challenge for farmers growing the brussels sprouts is the labor needed to trim the buds from the brussel sprout stalks after they have been harvested. This additional labor can cause the brussels sprouts to be priced at $4 a pound when schools and wholesalers will not pay more than $2.50. Large harvesters exist but they are very expensive and out-of-reach for small-scale farmers that HAFA serves. Our farmers needed a low-cost machine that could debud or trim the small budded brussels from the stalk, and then sort the buds according their sizes. This would greatly reduce the post-harvest labor cost of growing brussels sprouts and make them a financially viable cash crop to grow for our low income, non-English speaking Hmong farmers.

BACKGROUNDThe School of Engineering at the University of St. Thomas

The School of Engineering at the University of St. Thomas provides an applied, values-based learning experience that produces well-rounded, innovative engineers and technology leaders who have the technical skills, passion, and courage to make a difference. Under the Engineering Design Clinic, and as a part of their Senior capstone project experience, each year, our senior engineering students team with industry and non-profits to develop special prototype solutions to real world problems. From small start- ups to the largest companies in the Twin Cities, all find value in the thousands of hours of work put into each project.

After working on the project for a year, the four member team from St. Thomas presented the final brussels sprout trimmer prototype to HAFA and the Hmong farmers at the HAFA Farm in Vermillion Township on Thursday, May 23rd.

The four member team from St. Thomas are:

  • Jose F. Henriquez – Mechanical Engineering student who transferred from Inver Hills Community College in 2016. Jose was born in California but raised in Mexico and currently lives in St Paul. His biggest strength is mechanical design in CAD and creative problem solving. He likes to spend his free time working on painting, drawing and playing music.
  • Nathan D. Jones – Mechanical Engineering Student graduating spring 2019. Nate started his undergraduate at Inver Hills Community College before transferring to the University of St. Thomas. Currently lives in West Saint Paul with his wife and two kids. Nate is fascinated by fluid mechanics and excels at mechanical design. He spend his free time enjoying the outdoors with his family and shooting archery.
  • Milad C. Audi – Mechanical engineer, graduating in spring 2019. He is passionate about medical device engineering or other fields where he can contribute significantly to the quality of people’s lives. Will be working in the Twin Cities this summer as a teacher for a Catholic youth mission called Totus Tuus and then this fall will be looking for a local engineering job.
  • William A. Frost -Mechanical Engineering student at the University of St. Thomas, where he enjoyed machine design and other group challenges. He cultivates a wide variety of interests including languages, baking, and mathematics. He is graduating spring of 2019.

Hmong farmers make up the majority of the farmers in the local Twin Cities’ farmers markets, but many are getting older, and exiting farming because they do not have access to equipment that could make their operations less laborious and hard on their aging bodies. Innovative and creative thinking as demonstrated in this project and by these college students, could truly help Hmong farmers stay in farming and keep providing the community with fresh, locally grown, nutritious food.