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Ag Innovation Campus groundbreaking celebrated in Crookston

It was cold and windy on Crookston's southern edge, but no one minded being outside for around an hour to celebrate the groundbreaking of the first-of-its-kind Ag Innovation Campus

Times Report
Gov. Tim Walz, AIC board members and legislators prepare to toss dirt.

The fact that so many dignitaries, stakeholders and elected office-holders, several not properly dressed for the conditions, were more than happy to spend about an hour outside on a cold, windy Wednesday afternoon on Crookston’s southern edge was a clear indication of how momentous the groundbreaking ceremony Ag Innovation Campus’s small crush facility was.

“This is exciting; there are opportunities here,” Gov. Tim Walz said, thanking leaders from both the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA). “(The Ag Innovation Campus) speaks volumes for what we can do.”

Walz and AIC leaders gathered – with gold shovels in hand – at the AIC construction site for the official groundbreaking. The ceremony had been years in the making. In 2018 the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) invested checkoff funds in a feasibility study to support a regional soybean crush and biodiesel facility in northwest Minnesota. Crookston emerged as the ideal location. As the work progressed, a new vision for the Ag Innovation Campus evolved. The facility will provide a location to incubate other agriculture industry innovations under a mission of using Minnesota soybeans to create new products and jobs and generate myriad economic benefits for rural communities.

AIC Board member Trevore Brekken, left, and AIC Board Chair Mike Skaug, right, chat with Gov. Tim Walz.

“It’s going to add a lot to the local soybean market,” said AIC board member and MSR&PC Director Tom Frisch.

The AIC aims to improve the economic outlook for farmers across the country. It will allow farmers to maximize the value of their crops, increase jobs spanning the skillset range from management to utility labor, and take advantage of current markets in biodiesel, soybean oil, soybean meal and glycerin.

“This facility is going to be the first-of-its-kind,” MSR&PC CEO Tom Slunecka said. “Ultimately, it’s the farmers and their vision and their ability to ride along on this journey that got us here. They were the core investment of this, and they’ll continue to be the leaders. We can’t do it without them.”

$5 million from state was key

In 2019, spurred by an advocacy push from Minnesota Soybean Growers Association directors, the Minnesota Legislature approved $5 million in state funds toward the AIC in the bipartisan omnibus agriculture finance bill signed by Walz. The funding was released to the AIC in September 2020.

“It’s an exciting day to start this project and see the investment that soybean farmers have brought to Minnesota and northwest Minnesota,” MSGA President Jamie Beyer said. “This will bring jobs, research and, hopefully, we can find new uses and products for soybeans in this area.”

District 1B State Rep. Deb Kiel of Crookston and Gov. Tim Walz chat with others attending Wednesday's AIC groundbreaking.

Walz predicted the public will see a large return on its investment in innovation.

“This is bold; there’s no place in the world that has something like this,” he said. “People in Minneapolis – their tax dollars that help pay for this – are going to benefit greatly from this project.”

The AIC in Crookston will host a specialty crushing facility, allowing universities, commodity groups and private seed developers access to affordable processing that aims to lower costs while promoting growth of value-added products.

“There will be a lot of synergy that will come out of this facility,” AIC Project Manager Jim Lambert said. “(The AIC) is really more of an agricultural business incubator than anything. …There are a lot of good things going on here.”

The AIC aims to produce about 64,000 tons of soybean meal, crushing about 8,000 bushels of soybeans per production day. That equates to 2.5 million bushels a year or 61,000 acres of soybeans. Once established, the AIC will be home to private industries to create products to benefit all parties, from farm gate to consumers. A fully operating AIC will employ up to 65 staffers.

AIC Board Chair Mike Skaug speaks at Wednesday's AIC groundbreaking. Listening left to right are Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council CEO Tom Slunecka, AIC Project Manager Jim Lambert and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.

Slunecka credited the working partnerships established between commodity groups, Crookston officials, elected officials and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for the swift progress the AIC has made.

“This is just a perfect partnership at a time when we all need a little good news about the future,” Slunecka said. “This group is looking forward.”

Soybean production in northwest Minnesota has increased by more than 300 percent in the past 20 years, making it one of the nation’s largest soybean regions. Although the Ag Innovation Campus would improve the profitability of farmers throughout the state, the 11 northwest Minnesota counties that would see the most gain from the AIC produced more than 50 million bushels of soybeans in 2019.

“We are very excited about the possibilities the Ag Innovation Campus could lead to: the creation of the jobs, the research that will be going on here,” Crookston City Council member Jake Fee said. “We couldn’t be more excited that this is going on in Crookston.”

In addition to securing state funds and crucial work permits, the AIC is planning an October 2021 production goal despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The group has purchased equipment, along with 10 acres of land in Crookston for construction. The AIC this week opened an office in downtown Crookston, on South Main, and a website and social media campaign will be unveiled in the coming weeks, along with an upcoming cover story in the November-December issue of Soybean Business magazine.

Walz, alluding to a tumultuous 2020, was eager accentuate the positive and praised the AIC’s aggressive production goals.

“That ambitious timeline – that’s exactly what we need,” he said. “It’s been a little bit lean on good news, so when we get a good news story, we need to tell it.”