Hilltop: A Pioneer of Innovative Processing Systems
Vertically configured systems are nothing new at Hilltop Ranch. Shortly after founding the company in 1980 with his wife, Christine, founder David Long leveraged his engineering background to build what Hilltoppers call “Mount Satake” -- a 65' high almond sorting tower for separating almonds based on color and deformities. Long used the same vertical approach when he built a prototype almond pasteurizer in 2001, shortly after the industry's first salmonella incident. That system was soon followed by the company’s full-scale, 40' high pasteurization tower engineered and manufactured in cooperation with Wilkey Sheet Metal in nearby Turlock, Calif.
After the industry's second salmonella incident in 2004, the Almond Board of California (ABC), together with the USDA, developed a new pasteurization mandate specifying the four-log reduction minimum. Long was able to comply with the updated standard using his existing pasteurization by merely increasing the amount of steam and heat and making other adjustments. Today, Hilltop and Wilkey are partners in a pending patent for their refined vertical almond pasteurization system, which awaits validation testing for the four-log minimum by National Food Laboratories and approval by the ABC review committee.
Yet another example of Hilltop innovation is its use of a thermal fluid heating system by Fulton, Pulaski, N.Y. The thermal fluid heater uses isolated hot oil to generate steam, send hot air to the fluid bed dryer, and preheat the pasteurizing chamber. According to Long, the system is safer and more efficient than conventional boilers, and it does not require a permit or a licensed boiler operator. Moreover, the system is prevents condensation inside the equipment, according to the almond processor, while minimizing both water and energy requirements throughout the pasteurization process.
“We’re always looking for efficient solutions at Hilltop,” Long says. “Our custom-designed processes, which are often vertically oriented, conserve floor space while yielding all kinds of operational efficiencies that help reduce costs and provide safe, high quality almonds at a good price, at a rate of over 50 million pounds [22.7 metric tons] per year.”