Chao Tao Moua’s eyes glittered Thursday as she inspected the new Brussels sprout trimmer.
“I will be the first one to use it in the harvest season,” said Moua, 70, laughing with fellow farmers at the 150-acre Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) property in rural Rosemount.
Engineering students at the University of St. Thomas developed the prototype to save dozens of HAFA farmers from the difficult and time-consuming process of trimming the small budded sprouts from the stalk, and then sorting the buds according to size.
For the students, who developed the device as their senior capstone project, it was about finding a solution to a real-life problem. They searched through existing products and expired patents before crafting their idea, said Nathan Jones, a mechanical engineering student who led the project.
“We could draw from all of them and used our own creativity to develop a new device,” he said.
For Moua, the new trimmer — made with an aluminum frame and plastic components — means goodbye to three hours of manual work that her family of six has been doing every Friday night for the past two decades when sprouts are in season. They pick 25 gallons of trimmed sprouts — enough to sell at the farmers market over the weekend.
“This is like my third arm. It will make my job efficient,” Moua said of the new equipment. “Now, I can do all the debudding and sorting using this trimmer here in the farm and do not have to worry about work when I am home.”
Half of the 20 Hmong farming families who are members of the association grow Brussels sprouts. They produce around 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of sprouts annually at the farm.
Pakou Hang, executive director of HAFA, said some of the Brussels sprouts are sold at farmers markets and the rest go to schools, restaurants and wholesale markets. They are priced at $4 a pound after factoring in the labor to harvest them, she said. But “schools and wholesalers will not pay more than $2.50,” she said.
Kundan Nepal, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at St. Thomas, was the faculty adviser to the team of students and has worked with HAFA on multiple projects. He said the device, which can trim two stalks per minute, will make growing Brussels sprouts a financially viable crop.
The challenge, Nepal said, was to produce a low-cost device and adhere to food safety standards.
“It has to be used in a farm which has got water, dust, moisture and a wash station,” said Nepal, adding that the team first tested the device on frozen sprouts. Compeer Financial donated $3,000 to develop the prototype for the picker, which was donated to the farm.
Phoua T. Hang, 68, another HAFA farmer, said she was aware of devices to sort cucumbers but never thought a similar product for Brussels sprouts could be developed.
“This is a game changer for small-scale farmers like me,” she said.