Shovel ready: Ag Innovation Campus to dig deep for Minnesota’s ag economy

After decades of soybean checkoff research and development, the Ag Innovation Campus is set to revitalize Minnesota’s ag economy. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, ag leaders and elected officials, with shovels in hand, are expected to appear in Crookston for a groundbreaking ceremony celebrating the construction of a 67,000-square-foot soybean crush facility.

“We’ve been working toward this day for a long time, and it will be quite a moment to see the Ag Innovation Campus begin to become a reality,” said AIC Board Chair Mike Skaug, who farms in nearby Beltrami. “Many people across our industries have played a role in this coming to fruition, and we’re looking forward to honoring all the parties who are doing their part to help improve the economic outlook for Minnesota agriculture.”

The ceremony will begin at 1 p.m. at the Polk County Environmental Services Building (320 Ingersoll Ave.) in Crookston. Please note: social distancing and masks are required. Entrance cannot be guaranteed due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions.

The ceremony has been several 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. From this work, Crookston emerged as the ideal location. As the work progressed, a new vision for the Ag Innovation Campus evolved. This cutting-edge site 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.

“The Council sees the Campus as a wise use of checkoff resources. The Campus will foster an environment for unlimited potential for value-added ag products,” MSR&PC Chair Cole Trebesch said. “The Ag Innovation Campus will add value to soybeans in the region and can boost rural economies throughout the state while expanding opportunities for farmers and industry alike.”

This artist rendering shows the Ag Innovation Campus building, which will house a specialty crush facility, oil refining, classrooms and space for private industries. Illustration by Derek Byrozo.

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.

In 2019, spurred by a passionate advocacy push from Minnesota Soybean Growers Association directors, the Minnesota Legislature approved $5 million toward the AIC in the bipartisan omnibus agriculture finance bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz. The funding was released to the AIC in September 2020. In October, the AIC received crucial air permitting approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), paving the way for construction to begin.

“The MSGA team has put its grassroots advocacy in action behind the Ag Innovation Campus,” MSGA President Jamie Beyer said. “We’re thankful for the bipartisan support we’ve received from across the spectrum. Crookston officials have endorsed this project, along with the Legislature and Gov. Walz’s administration.”

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said the AIC will help the state maintain its position at the forefront of agriculture. .

“Thanks to the Minnesota Soybean Growers, Governor Walz, the state legislature and all those who have supported this project,” he said. “As a first-of-its kind facility in the country, the Ag Innovation Campus will help secure Minnesota’s reputation as a national leader in agriculture.”

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. Once established, the Campus 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 70 staffers. 

“Farmers drive agriculture with their innovation, and this project will serve that same purpose,” MSR&PC CEO Tom Slunecka said. “This is a big bang for our farmers and our organization.”

Soybean production in northwest Minnesota has increased by more than 300 percent in the past 20 years. 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 Campus produced more than 50 million bushels of soybeans in 2019.

In addition to securing state funds and crucial work permits, the AIC is planning a late 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 is opening an office in the Crookston area, 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.

“It’s full steam ahead on the Ag Innovation Campus,” Skaug said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with how the project has progressed so far. It’s been a total collaborative effort.”

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