UConn to Assist Connecticut Farmers with Innovative Projects

With support of a USDA grant, students and faculty from UConn’s College of Engineering and College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources will help farmers design and implement innovative tools to better their farming practices.

senior design project

As a senior design project, mechanical engineering majors Justin Gallo, Kylie Kearney, and Andrew Alaba helped a local farmer by designing a small, electric bean thresher. 

Agriculture and farming continue to be rooted into the University of Connecticut’s past and present.

What started out as the Storrs Agricultural School in 1881 after a 170-acre farmland donation, UConn—which also went by the name Connecticut Agriculture College in the early 1900s—remains dedicated to teaching students about the importance of agricultural sciences.

Now, with the support of a USDA Higher Education Challenge grant, UConn’s College of Engineering (CoE) and College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) are extending their agriculture education and assist Connecticut farmers through a Small Farm Innovations Project.

Click to enlarge the Small Farm Innovations flyer.

The project encourages local farmers to pitch inventive ideas that would benefit their farm. If selected, recipients will receive a participation stipend and be connected to a team of students, faculty, UConn Extension faculty, and agriculture service providers.

“We’re excited to be able to help local farmers explore ideas that will benefit the practical needs of their agricultural ventures,” says Tim Vadas, associate professor and director of the environmental engineering program. “And at the same time, we can train our engineering and agricultural students to work together on novel problems.”

The Small Farm Innovations Project is the result of a grant titled “Innovation on Small Farms Through a Project-based Learning Curriculum,” established and directed by Vadas and Gerald Berkowitz, professor of horticulture in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture. The project is conducted in partnership with the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance, the Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development Area, and the UConn Extension’s Solid Ground program, which offers in-person training and e-learning tools for new and beginning farmers.

Vadas is PI on the USDA grant, which is worth $720,000. One goal of the grant is to encourage alternative career paths in agricultural technology to help ensure a competent, qualified, and diverse workforce will exist to serve the food and agricultural sciences system.

“We are recruiting senior design projects from farmers who will be paired with students from CoE and CAHNR to work on them throughout next year,” says Vadas, who has taught senior design for eight years.

In 2020, three mechanical engineering majors—Kylie Kearney, Justin Gallo, and Andrew Alaba—worked on a similar senior design project to benefit the productivity for Cloverleigh Farm, a two-acre certified organic farm in Mansfield, Conn. Susan Mitchell, the farm’s owner, would painstakingly separate her beans from the pod by putting them in a bag and whacking them against the ground. Although a commercial bean thresher would be ideal, they cost upwards of $100,000. The engineering students worked with Mitchell to design a customized bean thresher using only locally sourced materials. After many design iterations, the team came up with a gravity-based device where the beans slide down an angled ramp, pass through a series electric-powered rotating threshers, continuing to an automatic sorting mechanism at the bottom.

“It’s ideas like these that we’d like to help local farmers bring to life,” Vadas says.

Applicants must be a production farmer located in Connecticut and have at least one year of production experience operating their own farm business. The project is intended for farmers who are currently, or are working toward, financially supporting themselves through their agricultural careers.

If selected, farmers must be able to meet weekly or twice monthly with the student team (three to five engineering and agriculture students), participate in surveys and an interview related to their experience, and participate in the Farm hack event hosted by New CT Farmers Alliance annually in January.

This project is supported by USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Award no. 2024-70003-41449).

To apply, fill out this form. The deadline to apply is March 15 and selected projects will begin in September.