It’s an especially opportune time for an organization like AURI to have a significant, lasting impact on Minnesota, and beyond, leaders say
Fresh off the recent “New Uses in Ag Forum” that drew almost 200 agriculture professionals to network and learn about the latest innovations underway to add value to ag products and commodities, leaders at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) headquarters at Valley Technology Park in Crookston are feeling like this is an opportune time to be in the ag innovation business.
“As with any company or organization, you have your ebbs and flows related to the state of business of any given time, but we never went away,” Shannon Schlecht, AURI executive director told the Times during a sit-down at VTP. “For us, value-added and new uses for ag products really are evergreen. There’s always a need for them, always a purpose. It comes down to innovation; there is always a need to innovate and come up with new ways of doing things.
“We’re about creating new markets for commodities and things like monetizing residue in waste products,” he continued. “So much of what we do enables farmers to continue the tradition of farming from one generation to the next. We’re here to help create new revenue streams and markets and additional monetizations. Those initiatives can be especially valuable when times are tougher for our farmers.”
AURI has four locations in Minnesota, with its headquarters in Crookston. Other offices are located in Marshall, Waseca and St. Paul. There are around 30 staff based in the four offices and also working in “virtual” locations.
AURI’s roots date back to the farm crisis of the early 1980s, which gave birth to the Greater Minnesota Corps, which tried to boost the prospects of rural Minnesota. That initiative resulted in two organizations, AURI and Enterprise Minnesota, with the former focused on value-added ag and the latter focused on adding value to manufacturing. AURI staff focus on business development and turning ideas into action. The scientific staff and researchers provide hands-on technical assistance in the lab to continue to further an idea, or determine that it’s not going to work as initially envisioned. At the Crookston headquarters Jimmy Gosse is the resident microbiologist focusing on bio-based and renewable energy projects, Schlecht explained. Gosse is also sort of a liaison between AURI and various research and promotion councils, such as soy.
AURI is a resource for customers looking to bring an idea or innovation to fruition, said Erik Evans, AURI director of communications, whether it’s in applied science or something like the entrepreneur-in-residence program. “It can be a real cost factor for people to engage in work at the concept level,” Evans said. “Through out Ag Innovation Partnership program, we seek ideas, and we move ideas of interest forward to the benefit of various organizations.”
Clients pay a fee for such services, which is tiered to help clients big or small, Schlecht noted.
Through long-term partnerships and consistent support from the Minnesota Legislature, Evans said AURI’s fee structure is manageable for a variety of clients. “We take our resources and magnify their impact by helping small innovators across the state,” he added.
In 2017, 227 potential projects were pitched, and 137 of those were “brand new,” Schlecht said, adding that last year AURI worked with more than 150 private businesses. “We try to push projects forward to completion, then attract new ideas and clients every year,” he said. “I’m constantly amazed at the innovation we see across Minnesota in food and ag. There are lots of creative people trying to move amazing ideas forward.”
AURI operates with an 11-member governing board. “I’m proud to say we have a very active and engaged board,” Evans said. “We have legislators, agri-business representatives active in their industries. This is not a passive, coffee and social time board. They’re involved in our operations and strategies and forging our future direction.”
There are currently three openings on the governing board.
Current, past successes
Some of AURI’s most intriguing ideas showing the most potential include s soybean oil-based road sealant. It’s currently being tested at more than 200 sites. “It’s environmentally friendly, and it uses commodities grown in Minnesota,” Schlecht said. “And from the economics standpoint, it preserves the road and adds to its life. There are a lot of wins with it.”
Another current project that’s especially encouraging involves water quality. AURI is working with the USDA Ag Research Service on ways to better deal with crop residues with biofilters and bioreactors that better address nitrate runoff. It’s still early in the process, but Schlecht said the goal is to make it as easy and cost effective as possible for farmers to use. It’s different than a buffer zone in that it could be utilized in tiled fields. In search of something more efficient than wood chips to use in the bioreactor, Evans said corn cobs and barley are being looked at.
Some probably still remember AURI’s earliest days, when the hot talk involved a wheat-based cat litter. Well, Schlecht said, “Sweet Scoop” probably still remains at AURI’s most well known project and its most large-scale success. “It’s on a national scale, and all of the processing is done in Detroit Lakes,” he said.
Other successes include the launch of an AURI company, Clean Products, Inc., with one of its most popular products used to clean up fuel spills at airports and construction sites. Midwest Ag is another company AURI works with to produce Nutrivance, a soybean meal with higher value and higher protein than fish meal.
Tremendous potential right now
With a growing interest in local foods and products and sustainability, Evans and Schlecht see this time as especially opportune to work with an organization like AURI.
“People want to know where their food is coming from,” Evans said.
“We refer to it as the reverse commute,” Schlecht added. “Consumers want transparency, they want traceability. We put the value chain in the eyes of the customer and then we work backwards, all the way back to, for example, a breeding program. We’ve always done that at AURI, but today it’s all more transparent than ever.
“We’re not just here, we’re growing,” he continued, adding that $76 million in new sales are on tap for this year and $90 million in new capital investment. “We’re putting dollars into the ground.”