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NOBA 2021: Farquhar’s Dairy is the Innovation Award winner

Eighty-eight-year-old Espanola operation harnessed local expertise and student contributions to find unique chiller solution

In 88 years of operation, Farquhar’s Dairy – one of the last independent, family-owned dairies in Ontario – has seen its share of changes.

When operations began in 1933, milk was loaded onto a cart, pulled by the company’s beloved horse, Molly, and delivered door to door. Today, Farquhar’s milk, butter and ice cream are transported from the company’s plant in Espanola to customers across Ontario via a fleet of 30 refrigerated and frozen delivery vehicles.

Despite all its advancements, one holdover from a previous generation was its 30-year-old water-cooled chiller, a piece of machinery that’s critical to keeping Farquhar’s products cooled at safe temperatures.

With a water-cooled chiller system, water runs through the compressors to cool them down and produce refrigeration, which then cools the milk during pasteurization, explained company president Don Farquhar.

It works well but results in excess water consumption; rather than recirculating, the water simply goes down the drain – an outdated and wasteful practice, Farquhar noted.

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So, the company set out to modernize its setup with a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative.

“We approached some companies about looking at new systems, and none of them were exactly what we wanted,” Farquhar said. “We’re a smaller dairy. It’s sort of hard to get some of the big, national companies to manufacture equipment that fits into our smaller profile.”

After brainstorming options, Farquhar decided to contact Cambrian College, with which he had dealt in the past.

Cambrian R&D, the research and development arm of the Sudbury college, partners with private sector organizations to help develop business ideas into reality and come up with custom solutions to persistent problems.

With input from the college and CIMCO Refrigeration, a Toronto-headquartered firm that specializes in industrial refrigeration, the group came up with a plan for a contemporary unit that would eliminate the need for water in the cooling process and meet the capacity requirements specific to Farquhar’s facility.

“The crux of it was to make an air-cooled system that didn’t use any water and also greatly reduced the electricity used during the refrigeration creation,” Farquhar said. “So that’s what they did.”

Over the next several months, Farquhar's, Cambrian, and CIMCO met frequently to advance the project and oversee its development, while students from some of the college’s industrial trades programs – HVAC, welding and fabrication, and electrical engineering among them – were recruited to complete the build.

As a business that regularly hires refrigeration companies to service and maintain their equipment to a high standard, Farquhar said he’s keenly aware of the benefits to students to gain hands-on experience in the field.

It was that collaborative element that’s built into Cambrian R&D’s mandate that really appealed to him.

“I like that the students were getting real-world knowledge on developing and understanding refrigeration,” Farquhar said.

“We’re fairly proud of the fact that we were able to, in some small way, help them get a little bit of knowledge. I thought that was pretty neat.”

Cambrian R&D even helped Farquhar’s apply for, and receive, project funding, which covered 50 per cent of the development costs.

Though the experience overall was a positive one, Farquhar said, it wasn’t without its snags.

The arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 slowed the project significantly, especially in the early days when the college was required to close under the provincial shutdown, and no work was being done.

A saving grace is that the dairy didn’t need the unit immediately and could wait until it became safe for the college to return to full operation, Farquhar said.

Finally completed in September 2020, the chiller was installed at the plant shortly after.

Measuring eight feet by 15 feet, the chiller is exactly what the dairy needed, and more, thanks to tweaks made by the developers, Farquhar said.

Chief among them is the variable speed motors, which keeps it operating at peak capacity at all times.

“It’s definitely working well,” Farquhar said. “We’re thrilled that we’re no longer wasting water through our facility, and we’re happy with the reduced hydro consumption as well, so it’s been good.”

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.