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AIC: Stakeholders eye spring groundbreaking

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    With a $5 million grant in their pocket from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, leaders of the Ag Innovation Campus on Crookston’s southern edge are focusing all of their efforts on a spring 2021 groundbreaking of the 67,000 square foot facility and being open and operational, at least for initial phase operations, in 2022.

    The MDA money was approved by the Minnesota Legislature in 2019 and was officially allocated to the AIC this past summer.

    “The $5 million grant from MDA is obviously a huge boost to getting this thing built,” rural Crookston farmer Mike Skaug told the Times while combining on Tuesday. Skaug is vice president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and earlier this year was elected chair of the AIC Board of Directors. “MDA has been just great to work with,” Skaug added.

    When fully operational, it’s expected that 65 to 70 staff will work at the Ag Innovation Campus, Drew Lyon of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association tells the Times.

    Meanwhile, the City of Crookston and CHEDA are working to secure state funding to help cover the costs of a road and other infrastructure needed on the AIC site south of Ingersoll Avenue, on slightly more than 100 acres of land that CHEDA and Crookston Jobs purchased around a decade ago. CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth and Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner at the most recent CHEDA Board meeting said that the specifications of the road going into the property have been changed, meaning that the state grant request will be in the $500,000 range instead of $800,000 to $900,000.

    The 10-acre site for the AIC is tucked in the far northwest corner of what’s referred to as the “Colborn property.” Another smaller portion of the parcel has been earmarked for an expansion of Vertical Malt, a craft barley malting operation that’s currently housed at Valley Technology Park. The largest chunk of the land, approximately 60 acres, is envisioned for a large soybean crushing facility, Epitome Energy. The AIC initiative emerged as a much smaller complement to Epitome Energy next door, but as progress toward raising the necessary funds and breaking ground for Epitome Energy has been slower than expected, the AIC has continued to push forward toward construction.

    The two initiatives are independent of one another, although they could work together on various ventures.

    “We’d be the research leg (in a relationship with Epitome Energy),” Skaug explained. (Epitome Energy) would be stand-alone, but we would want to be in harmony with one other. The Ag Innovation Campus, I think, is just easier to get done and is not as complicated as the large crush (operation). But Epitome is still coming along.”

    One of the AIC’s initial goals will be to work with area soybean growers and “do some specialty soybean oils” that would be processed in 2022, Skaug said. There are also plans for a “mechanical” soybean crush facility with a maximum daily capacity of 240 tons. Since it’s mechanical in nature it produces dust but no pollutants.

    “The air-permitting is pretty much a done deal,” Skaug said. “That went really well.”

    AIC officials confirmed after press time Wednesday that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has in fact approved an air permit “crucial” to the facility becoming a reality.

    “This is a very big milestone for us,” AIC Project Manager Jim Lambert said. “MPCA approving our air permit is really one of the key steps in this project.”

    Lambert applauded MPCA’s diligence in approving the permit in a mere 30 days, much quicker than expected in what is typically an arduous, drawn-out process.  

    “We give MPCA a lot of accolades and appreciate the attention MPCA afforded our permit application,” he said. “To approve an air permit in 30 days is unheard of, really.”

    What puts the “Campus” in the AIC’s title is its focus on collaborative research on not just soybeans but other commodities grown in fields across the region. Universities, commodity groups and private seed developers will have access to processing that aims to lower costs while promoting growth of value-added products. Eventually, the AIC will host private industries to create products from various co-products at the facility, benefiting farmers and ag-related stakeholders, as well as consumers.

The artist rendering shows the Ag Innovation Campus building on Crookston’s southern edge, which will house a specialty crush facility, oil refining, classrooms and space for private industries.
The AIC will have several bays, depicted in the image, where companies can test research on the path to commercialization.