Flourishing success for local agri-food innovator

Pictured with the Hamill’s Microgreens Harvester Dryer: Lucas Howe, Mechanical Engineering student and former Research Assistant with NC’s Research & Innovation division and Al Spence, PhD, Research Lead at the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre.

No longer just a tiny garnish, microgreens — the edible delicacies grown from the seeds of vegetables and herbs — are now a flourishing market in North America. To save farmers’ time and money harvesting this specialty crop, Niagara’s Hamill Agricultural Processing Solutions added manufacturing to the mix, with its automated industrial system, the MicroGreens Harvester line.

Without the resources or capabilities for in-house R&D, Hamill sought the applied research expertise at Niagara College’s Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (WAMIC) to help develop a new product line of agri-food equipment that automates the harvesting (cutting, washing and drying) of microgreens, sprouts and wheatgrass. The three “Harvester” machines can be used separately or conjointly.

The Research & Innovation team collaborated with Hamill to experiment, testing the various air knife positions, blowers and mechanical/electrical systems, to design the optimum microgreen conveyer dryer. The stainless steel machine will work alone or conjointly with both the Harvester cut and wash machines, which are capable of harvesting 2,200 trays a day of microgreens, results that are more than 50 times faster than manual harvesting.

“We’ve reduced the time needed for processing a tray from 2 minutes by hand to three seconds with the harvester,” says Hamill owner Bob Benner.

This innovative trio is already saving farmers thousands of dollars daily and is receiving interest from across the globe — a success now requiring Hamill to expand both its facilities and workforce. Since collaborating with Niagara College, Hamill has hired 10 more permanent employees, including welders, machinists and mechanical engineers.

After commercializing its microgreens product line, Benner has forecasted total sales to rise after two years from $750,000 to $2 million.

“With the help of the research team we’ve been able to fine-tune the equipment, of which we are now selling in Canada, the U.S., and most recently New Zealand,” says Benner, whose business received funding help through the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium, funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev).

“We’re thankful that we have an R&D partner like the Walker Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre at Niagara College,” says Benner. “It has been integral to our innovation success, demonstrated through our collaborations both in tech services and applied research projects.”