Facility would serve as a 'turbocharger' for the larger Epitome plant.

Although efforts to bring a large soybean crush and biodiesel facility to Crookston, known as Epitome Energy, continue to dominate the headlines, at a large event at Valley Technology Park Thursday, as many as 90 people packed into the renovated common gathering place in the facility heard about the innovative things that the proposed Soy Innovation Campus would be able to accomplish.

Tom Slunecka, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers association, said the Soy Innovation Campus would be the first of its kind in the nation, and would not only serve as a smaller-scale version of the Epitome Energy facility itself, it would also be a testing and research site for any number of crushing processes for other commodities, with clients from potentially across the country.

“It will be a small crush facility that will utilize new technologies to crush plants from across the country,” Slunecka noted.

While acknowledging the Soy Innovation Campus’ direct tie to the University of Minnesota and that much work needs to be done before it becomes reality – including approval by the U of M’s Board of Regents – Slunecka said the goal is to break ground in July 2020 on the facility, which would be located next to Epitome Energy on a 100-acre parcel on Crookston’s southern edge. He also noted that the Minnesota Legislature in 2019 approved $5 million in state funding for the Soy Innovation Campus initiative in Crookston.

Slunecka said the Soy Innovation Campus would serve as a “turbocharger” for the larger Epitome Energy plant. (During his time in front of the audience Thursday, Epitome Energy founder Dennis Egan announced that although the original plan was to construct a 21-million bushel facility, the vision now is to double the capacity, to 42 million bushels. Although it might not be part of the initial build, Egan said a 42-bushel capacity is the goal.)

Slunecka said the innovation campus would crush soybeans and produce oil and meal 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether it’s “doing it’s own thing” for clients and research purposes, or “as part of the Epitome flow.” Through it all, it would be a sort of “training ground,” too, he noted, adding that there are “infinite possibilities” that could involve canola, wheat and maybe even hemp. “The sky’s the limit,” Slunecka said.

The Soy Innovation Campus will also allow for processes and innovations that worked on a smaller scale to be tested at more of a mid-range level. “Scaling up is where you typically run into problems, and clients and (processing) plants want to see something done at the middle stage, which is what the campus will be able to provide,” Slunecka explained, adding that because of its non-profit status it will be free to fail from time to time. “If something fails, it’s alright,” he said, “because you avoid concerns that stockholders might have.”


Dust, noise, smell, and equity drive

Reiterating concerns he brought to the Crookston City Council recently, south-end Crookston resident Bob Prudhomme, who would live next to the Epitome Energy facility, asked Egan about the dust, noise and smell the plant will produce.

Egan noted that the smell will be a toasted soybean smell and sort of “cereal-like.” Realizing the plant will be located within city limits, Egan said the goal will be to be as clean of a neighbor as possible. The permitting process will take as long as one year to complete, he noted, because it’s so thorough. State officials in attendance at the meeting mentioned that the facility will incorporate state-of-the-art equipment and will at least meet air quality standards currently in place. As to Prudhomme’s continued questions on dust and other environmental impacts, Egan said that will all be determined in an official capacity through the Environmental Impact Review and permitting process required by various state agencies.

Prudhomme stressed that he’s not against Epitome Energy coming to Crookston; he said he’d just like his concerns addressed.

Nicole Bernd, executive director of the West Polk Soil and Water Conservation District in Crookston, asked Egan about water consumption. Egan said he’s been assured that the plant would be “well under the threshold of available water.” He added that he’s met with American Crystal Sugar representatives as well, since their Crookston facility actually produces water. If there’s a feasible way to utilize some water from American Crystal as well, Egan said it’s worth exploring.

The soybean meal produced at Epitome Energy will be shipped out to customers in Minnesota and nationwide, from turkey farms in central Minnesota, to hog operations further north in Minnesota, and “large players” in the livestock industry on the West Coast, even salmon farms home to fish who consume soybean meal. The fact that Epitome Energy will have direct access to a new rail spur gives it a leg up on transporting goods, Egan said. (A state grant of around $500,000 was previously awarded to help with the railroad infrastructure needs for the facility.)

As for other major infrastructure needs, the plan is for Crookston and Epitome Energy and other stakeholders to collaborate on a bonding request in the 2020 Minnesota Legislative session that will total several million dollars.

A major equity drive is currently underway. Although those leading the drive stressed Thursday that it’s tough to ask farmers to write out checks when the ag industry is struggling as it is now, times like these are also the prime opportunity for farmers to take advantage of an opportunity to control more of their own destiny by controlling more of their products and keeping them closer to home. As for Epitome Energy, the plan is for farmers who buy into the company to benefit more than farmers who don’t buy in but benefit from the company’s presence, they said Thursday.

The goal is for a community-owned venture that minimizes “economic leakage” that comes when outside interests own a significant chunk of the company. The thinking among those leading the equity drive is that the need for a facility like Epitome Energy in this area is so great that the effort has reached the point that it’s a “when” and not an “if” proposition when it comes to building it. What remains to be determined is the ratio of local and area ownership as opposed to ownership by outside interests.