PMIL partner puts experience to work making equipment for small-scale production

By Allison Floyd

University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab

Frank Nolin didn’t start out making equipment to handle 50 pounds of peanuts at a time. For three generations, the Nolin family worked in designing and manufacturing large-scale equipment for peanut buyers and shellers in Georgia and other states in the Southeastern U.S.; their machines handled tons of peanuts at a time, not pounds.

But eight years ago, Jay Williams with PMIL’s predecessor Peanut Collaborative Research Support Program (Peanut CRSP) approached him with a need for equipment in Guyana. He needed some screens, which are used to sort kernels after shelling; he wanted to know if Nolin could help.

“He said, ‘I hear you punch screens. Do you think you can help me?’” Nolin recalls. “He told me what it was, what he needed, and showed me some pictures.

“I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’”

“At the time, we made pretty much anything in the peanut industry from the farm to the processing plant,” Nolin said. “But nobody made equipment that was small enough to be useful in the developing world.”

Today, Nolin runs a commercial business manufacturing small-scale peanut equipment, while his son owns and runs the family’s equipment manufacturing plant, Nolin Steel. Peanuts are big business in Georgia, the leading producer in the U.S. at around 1.2 million tons, or $565 million worth a year.

Word spread about Nolin’s willingness to entertain smaller projects and soon a group of peanut scientists invited him on a trip. They wanted him to go to Haiti to see some of the needs first-hand and how he could apply his expertise.

That first trip took him to Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, where Peanut CRSP partner Meds & Food for Kids(MFK) planned to build a new processing plant. At the time MFK was operating out of an old house, but had ambitious plans to build a professional plant that could employ locals, make healthy peanut products and supply Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF).

“I designed and built a small dryer so that they wouldn’t have to dry on tarps,” Nolin said. “That was the first thing.”

Proper drying is one of the big factors in keeping toxic mold from growing on peanuts. Molds from the Aspergillus genus are found in the soil, infect many crops including peanuts, and produce chemicals that cause cancer, liver damage and stunting in children. The levels of toxins often increase after harvest.

That dryer, which Nolin designed with suggestions from USDA agricultural engineer Chris Butts, is now a template for equipment in other rural places that don’t have a lot of electricity to spare. Nolin has worked with Project Peanut Butter in Sierra Leone and Ghana, has done work in Nicaragua, has an order for a blancher in Jamaica, and may do a project in Malawi this year.

He’s also working with PMIL scientist Greg McDonald’s Haiti Peanut Value Chain Interventions project, which aims to address the problems that limit peanut production in the Caribbean country.

“Somebody who’s in business to make a lot of money won’t take a second look at this small-scale equipment because it’s just not worth their time,” he said.

Still the work is a business, and Nolin runs it like one. He may fabricate the machines himself at Nolin Steel, which is now owned by his son, but he pays for the time on the factory machines.

“I found out early on, working for MFK, if you give everything away, sooner or later you don’t have anything left to give,” he jokes.

By applying his skills to the problem, Nolin hopes he helps improve people’s lives by giving them tools, not just a one-time gift.

“I’m a simple-minded person, so I believe in keeping it simple. Make it simple and sturdy and easy to fix,” he said.

Throughout his career manufacturing large machines for Georgia’s peanut industry, Nolin never worked with a government agency. Partnering with the peanut innovation lab, he not only thinks about how to make machinery, but also about how to support the overall mission to produce a safe, nutritious and plentiful crop.

“I try to help people who are not working with PMIL and are not aware of their aflatoxin problem to be aware of it. I am trying to get them to understand how important it is to remove peanuts from the edible product that may contain toxins,” he said. “Sometimes that is not an easy thing to do as some feel like they are throwing away good product. I do not want them to produce a product that can be harmful to others and especially the children who are the largest users of it.”

Published February 26, 2016