They're looking to make a significant purchase, in the form of $1.8 million in equipment from Arkansas.

While multiple indicators point to Epitome Energy facing an uphill battle when it comes to constructing its $225 million, 42 million-annual-bushel soybean crush and biodiesel facility within founder and CEO Dennis Egan’s initially hoped-for timeline, stakeholders behind the proposed “Soybean Innovation Campus” that would be located on the same acreage on Crookston’s southern edge hope to make progress that would be visible to passers-by later this year.

In what is looking more and more like a multi-phase initiative, it’s possible that later this year on around 10 acres of a 106-acre piece of land south of Ingersoll Avenue that the City of Crookston purchased a decade ago, a building could be constructed that, at least for now, would serve primarily as a storage facility for equipment that soy innovation campus leaders are looking to purchase.

And when all is said and done, if all of the phases come to fruition, it’s possible that the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) currently headquartered at Valley Technology Park on the northern fringes of the UMN Crookston campus would move its operation to the soy innovation campus.

That was the word this week from CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth to the advisory committee formed in 2019 in conjunction with Epitome Energy’s efforts to make its way through the lengthy air-quality and environmental impact permitting process. Since day one, the soy innovation campus and Epitome Energy have been mentioned frequently in the same sentence because they would work in tandem at times and the smaller facility (an estimated 12 semis a day) would complement the larger one (an estimated 90 semis a day) when need be. But with the soy innovation campus having a mission that extends beyond crushing soybeans and producing oil or biofuels, not to mention a much smaller price tag, it’s possible that it could be one or more phases into reaching its potential in Crookston before Epitome Energy would ever break ground.

Hoiseth is a member of the soy innovation campus’ initial, interim board of directors, which held its first meeting this week via a conference call that lasted almost two hours. Other local representatives on the board include farmers Mike Skaug and Trevore Brekken, along with Jimmy Gosse, a scientist with AURI.

There is still funding that needs to be found. The total innovation campus price tag is in the $13 to $14 million range, Hoiseth said, significantly more than the $5 million the state legislature awarded last year through its agriculture appropriations bill. And, Hoiseth said this week, with other projects “pulling at” the $5 million initially awarded, it’s looking more likely than less than the full amount will end up being allocated. It could be more like $4 million, he said, adding that the hope is that the funds are made available this coming summer.

Soy innovation campus stakeholders are looking to Arkansas to make one of their first major investments, in the form of needed equipment that would cost around $1.8 million to purchase and have delivered to Crookston. Hence the building envisioned for construction this year to house the purchase.

Early on, the talk was of Epitome Energy owning the land that would house its facility along with the soy innovation campus. But Hoiseth said the innovation campus stakeholders would like to own the land they build on. “We said, ‘Hey, the tent is big enough; we should all be able to play on the same 100 acres,” he said. “We’ll get there on the land details.”

On one hand, the soy innovation campus’ mission and focus would be to serve the larger Epitome Energy facility, specific to crushing soybeans. But beyond that, the sky is sort of the limit on what could be tested and researched within its walls, whether it’s soybeans or other commodities, non-GMO, plasma, and oils for food consumption. That’s why, Hoiseth said, it might make sense for AURI to be on-site. He added that the VTP revenue budget would be able to withstand AURI’s departure, and that having AURI at the innovation campus could provide some financial sustainability there going forward.

Meanwhile, with it looking unlikely that the City of Crookston will seek state bonding in 2020 in the amount of $7 million to cover half the costs to bring infrastructure to the Epitome Energy site, it’s looking more likely that a smaller amount, maybe $2 or $3 million with some local dollars to sweeten the request, will be sought to bring the infrastructure from Ingersoll Avenue to the soy innovation campus, as well as to Vertical Malt, which is also looking to build a new facility on around 10 acres on the same acreage on Crookston’s southern edge.

Hoiseth said the stakeholders advancing the soy innovation campus are “really tuned in to what is going on in St. Paul” and that they could be especially valuable as the City fine-tunes and brings forth a bonding proposal to the state capitol. But with Gov. Tim Walz already releasing his first bonding proposal last week, local stakeholders need to hustle.

Asked about the multi-phase approach, Hoiseth said it could involve a road to the innovation campus site and extension of infrastructure in 2020. The next phase could involve a building very similar to the first building, both of which would largely resemble simple steel structures. The third phase would involve a more attractive building and/or facing with offices, etc. facing the direction most visible to passers-by and visitors to the innovation campus. 

“They want people to come from all over the world, so it’s going to be an impressive facility,” he said.