Featured on: The Cary News

The hull shebang

By Ann Claycombe, Staff writer

Lindsay Holcombe and Christie Fahey lean forward, their heads almost touching as they peer at the controls on the machine.
With a little help from Lindsay, Christie twists a handle to send buckwheat hulls rushing into a bin. She hooks a plastic bag to the bottom of the bin and pulls a lever to let the hulls fall into the bag.

“Go, Christie, go!” Lindsay says. Christie smiles.

Lindsay and Christie, both 15 years old, represent the entire workforce of the business based at www.buckwheathull.com. They spend a few hours each week packaging and shipping buckwheat hulls, which are naturally hypoallergenic and commonly used as pillow stuffing.

It’s typical for girls their age to hold after-school jobs — even those who are home-schooled, as both girls are. But Lindsay, who has Down syndrome, and Christie, who is autistic, cannot take typical teenage activities for granted.

That’s why Lindsay’s mother, Jackie Holcombe, started the business out of her family’s Morrisville home — so that Lindsay and Christie, and eventually other kids like them, would have a chance to contribute.

Originally, the assets of the business consisted of a Web site, a 700-pound pile of buckwheat hulls and a coffee can, which Lindsay used to scoop out 2-pound shipments.

But the process was slow, and boring, and frustrating. Jackie went looking for help.

It arrived in the form of Dr. Hamid Davoodi, a mechanical engineering professor at N.C. State University. He turned the buckwheat hull problem into a semester-long independent study for four of his students.

The result sits in the Holcombe garage — a hand-built machine that uses a shop vacuum to suck hulls into giant hoppers, then a system of valves to dispense them into bags.

The machine does the grunt work and lets Lindsay and Christie concentrate on the details. The girls fill bags of several sizes, weigh them, then print off labels and pack them for shipping.

It’s a great experience, said Christie’s mother, Laurie Fahey of Cary, listing the benefits to her daughter.

“The responsibility, the learning,” she said. “Knowing that she can be responsible by herself.”

Building a business

Buckwheat hulls might seem like a curious foundation for a family business. Most people, Jackie Holcombe said, do not even know what they are.

Buckwheat, also known as kasha, is an edible grain. Each buckwheat kernel grows encased in a hard, brown shell, which is removed before the grain is eaten.

This hardy plant is commonly grown without the use of pesticides, in addition to being hypoallergenic. Jackie Holcombe first encountered buckwheat hulls last spring, when she brought a small amount home for a craft project, a pillow she was working on.

“I was making a gift for a friend,” she said.

Jackie noticed that Lindsay had taken a liking to the hulls, which have a soft, springy feel. She liked to run her fingers through them, just “messing around,” as her mom put it.

And thus the idea for www.buckwheathull.com was born. Holcombe had struggled to find a small amount for her own project — hulls normally come in industrial-size, 700-pound sacks. If Lindsay was interested, she reasoned, they could fill a niche by providing smaller packages to individual hobbyists; their smallest size, a 2-pound bag, for instance, sells for $5.99 plus shipping.

The Web-based business took off quickly and is already turning a profit, Jackie Holcombe said. Better still, it provides a job — and a $6-an-hour wage — for Lindsay and Christie. If the business continues to grow, Holcombe hopes to be able to offer jobs to others with disabilities.

Christie is still learning the ropes, but Lindsay is already a seasoned professional. She can fill the bags herself, then label them, pack them and print off shipping labels for them.

“She can do a lot,” Jackie Holcombe said. “I always double-check [the weight]. I always double-check the label.” Other than that, she said, Lindsay fills orders on her own.

“We rock!” Lindsay said, happy with a job well done.

“This is fun.”

In some ways, the easy part of starting the business was coming up with a product to sell, Jackie Holcombe said. The hard part was setting things up so that Lindsay and Christie could work on their own without getting frustrated or bored.

That is where Davoodi and his students came in.

“Jackie contacted me and described the problem,” he said. “I thought it was a very noble idea.”

Davoodi recruited four senior mechanical engineering majors to work on building a packaging machine. The students — David Anderson, Nathan Houston, Bernard Meier and George Ware — received class credit for the project.

But they went far above the demands of the class, Holcombe said.

“They measured the garage,” she said. “They measured Lindsay. They took buckwheat hulls with them.”

In fact, the students applied for and got a grant that paid for the components of the machine.

They quickly understood the challenge at the heart of the project: building a machine that would do some of the work, but not too much. The machine had to be interactive, so Lindsay and Christie would still have work to do.

“It couldn’t have been better,” Jackie Holcombe said of the finished project. The machine feeds hulls into a large bin, which holds just about two pounds’ worth. But the girls must empty the bin into a bag, weigh the bag and adjust its contents accordingly. That takes patience, coordination and math skills.

“You still have to do some fudging,” Jackie Holcombe explained.

It was an unusual project, Davoodi said — in past classes, students have worked for large corporations and never met the people who would use the machines they built. All four of the students who built the Holcombes’ machine earned an A-plus for their work, he said.

They plan to present the project at a professional conference.

“I’ve been teaching for 16 years,” Davoodi said, “and I’ve done a lot of undergraduate projects, and this was the best.”

Christie Fahey does not have Davoodi’s vast experience, but she knows firsthand how well the project turned out. After filling a bag, she paused and gave her assessment.

“This is fun,” she said with a smile.

Contact: Ann Claycombe at (919) 460-2607 or aclaycom@nando.com

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