fbpx

Minnesota Soybean Business

Crushing it: Ag Innovation Campus readies operations

July-August 2023

Five years ago, Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) CEO Tom Slunecka had an epiphany. Slunecka envisioned a farmer-led collaboration with industry partners that would solve a recurring problem in product research and development by constructing a site that would host soybean innovation for both the public and private sectors.

The facility would seize on the recent success of MSR&PC research efforts – including biodiesel and High Oleic soybean varieties – all while helping northern Minnesota soybean farmers capture the added value of the crush plant by reducing basis charges and increasing the profitability of livestock production in the area.

The Ag Innovation Campus evolved out of that vision.

“With many groups working together to advance value-added soybeans, while also helping to advance new processing technologies, this facility will create new options for profitability to the farm gate and bring new renewable options for consumers,” said Slunecka, acting AIC CEO. “To see this all come together within a handful of years has been enormously gratifying – and challenging.”

For years, soybean checkoff programs have invested in new ideas and value-added products. As is typical of new ideas, many turned successful bench top research into a viable product and reached the “valley of death” – the place where many great ideas and startup companies fall short of reaching the marketplace. This happens for myriad reasons, namely the expenses needed to locate and build a facility that operates at volumes large enough to grab the attention of companies or investors. Farmer checkoff leaders across the country have all seen promising checkoff projects hit roadblocks on the path to commercialization, but the AIC aims to avoid this pitfall.

“The idea behind AIC occurred after running into these typical barriers head-on,” Slunecka said. “We ran into these barriers with great checkoff-funded projects like RePlay, TruSoya and Plasma Blue, just to name a few. Good ideas need an affordable place for trial and error – that’s what drove creation of the facility.”

‘Bold’ goals

Once the vision was crafted, the Council took the concept out of the pages of Slunecka’s notebook and helped bring it to reality. The Council provided $1 million in checkoff resources for the feasibility study. The study placed Crookston, Minn., located in the heart of Polk County, as the ideal location with access to major highways, railways and infrastructure. Polk County is also one of the top soybean-producing counties in the state, and northwest Minnesota produces some of the best quality soybeans.

Like all checkoff concepts, all roads lead back to the producer.

“Ultimately, it’s the farmers and their vision and their ability to ride along on this journey,” Slunecka said. “They were the core investment of this, and they’ll continue to be the leaders. We can’t do it without them.”

Beltrami farmer Mike Skaug, who serves as AIC chair, is excited about the impact the AIC will have on farmer profitability and the regional economy. “Not only are we going to bring high-quality jobs to the area,” he said, “we’re going to give growers a chance to contract with AIC for both specialty and commercial soybean varieties. Our local growers, our local community, but also the state and entire soybean industry are all going to benefit from the AIC.”

The Minnesota Soybean Growers Association was also instrumental in securing funding for the AIC. Farmers lobbied eagerly and aggressively in the legislature and acquired a $5.75 million grant from the state in 2019 and 2020, allowing AIC to begin construction. The official groundbreaking occurred in October 2020, and dirt began moving the following summer.

“This is exciting; there are opportunities here,” Gov. Tim Walz said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “(The Ag Innovation Campus) speaks volumes for what we can do. … This is bold; there’s no place in the world that has something like this.”

Embracing challenges

Breaking ground was the easy part. Then came the process of securing the parts, pieces, equipment and experts to build this one-of-a-kind crushing facility. To boot, the AIC contended with a tight budget during a time of historic inflation spikes and workforce shortage caused by the pandemic.

Slunecka credited a talented roster of professionals – from engineers to construction firms – with keeping the AIC on track, along with steadfast support from the city of Crookston and legislative leaders, including Sen. Mark Johnson and Rep. Deb Kiel. “

We have a great team in place to tackle challenges headon,” Slunecka said. “Brian Ruschy has been overseeing the construction, Seg Niebuhr has been a rock star with the ins and outs of the industrial processing equipment and Bill Paulsen of Energy Management Solutions is helping oversee the day-to-day operations and putting together the rest of the AIC team.”

Because of the limited budget, the AIC will be built in phases. Phase I, which begins operations this summer, features the 16,000-square foot facility with three independent crushing lines. The facility will produce an average of 240 tons of soybean meal daily. In turn, the profits from the crushing lines will fund the next two phases of AIC.

Included in that will be laboratory space, meeting space, an innovative “Crushwalk” above the facility for tours and educational opportunities and office space for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).

“AURI has had a long history in Crookston as one of our main office sites,” AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlect said, “but as we looked towards the future we were really interested in AIC, not just because of the value-added agriculture but also to reestablish our laboratory presence in northwest Minnesota.”

Schlect hopes that by having office and laboratory space, combined with the AIC’s smaller scale processing capabilities, AURI will be able to fuel innovation in the region.

“It’s a natural synergy for us in terms of being available to provide the technical and business assistance to entrepreneurs and startup businesses that would be utilizing those innovation bays and advancing their food and agricultural ideas,” he said. “We look forward to contributing to the overall goals and mission of the Ag Innovation Campus efforts.”

MSR&PC Chair and AIC Treasurer Tom Frisch is anticipating those first beans to hit the crush line. Frisch will also have a direct connection to the first crush.

“Last year I grew High Oleic TruSoya soybeans on my farm in Traverse County,” Frisch said. “Those beans will be some of the first beans to go through the crushing line at AIC. It’s neat to see it come full circle.”

To learn more about the AIC and its myriad partnership opportunities, visit www. aginnovationcampus.org. “

This facility is going to be the first-of-its kind,” Slunecka said. “We’re going to develop and process products that consumers want today and tomorrow, not yesterday.”

Time to crush it

The Ag Innovation Campus is holding its Phase 1 Grand Opening on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Crookston. The tour begins at 11:30 a.m. with a tour of the Northern Crops Institute, with the ribbon-cutting ceremony set for 4:30 p.m.

Guests are expected to include:

-State of Minnesota officials
-City of Crookston leaders
-AIC directors and Acting CEO Tom Slunecka
-Agriculture luminaries

If interested in attending, contact Events Manager Todd Ginter at Todd@agmgmtsolutions.com

Subscribe

Please add me to the Soybean Business Magazine list: