CROOKSTON, Minn. – The ag community continues to work toward filling tomorrow’s pipeline with value-added products, despite COVID-19.
An exciting project, the Agricultural Innovation Campus (AIC), offers new commercialization opportunities for locally-grown oilseeds.
The northwestern Minnesota project will provide proof of concept for new oilseed products moving from the lab setting and through crushing to a commercial setting. The AIC crushing facility will have the ability to produce thousands of gallons of oil.
“AIC is a small crush facility that is going to process and promote specialty oils from any plant-type that produces oilseed,” said Mike Skaug, interim chair of the AIC board of directors, and a farmer in Polk County, Minn. Skaug also serves as vice president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. “We’ll have the capabilities of working with soybeans, sunflower, canola, hemp, flax – any plant type that produces oilseed.”
Among the first items to be tested is the high-oleic soybean, which is crushed to make quality cooking oil. High-oleic soybean oil is heart healthy and works well for commercial frying. Farmers could have the opportunity to grow either GMO or non-GMO varieties of this soybean and possibly receive a premium.
The AIC will produce both soybean oil and soybean meal.
The challenge is getting investors.
Organizers of the AIC hope this campus can bring investors in.
“There are so many great ideas that never make it from the farmgate to the consumer because they died in what most investors call the ‘valley of death.’ The valley of death is the point between benchtop and commercialization that is so oftentimes too expensive for new entrepreneurs to cross,” said Tom Slunecka, CEO of Ag Management Solutions.
“By providing the AIC as a not-for-profit, we hope to give life to a lot of new ideas that have been under development.”
The specialty crushing facility will be designed to allow universities, commodity groups, private seed developers and industries access to affordable oil processing.
“This is a very exciting initiative that will have a positive impact on – and help drive – the development of value-added agricultural products,” said Jim Lambert, project manager for the new campus.
Nearly one year ago, the Minnesota Legislature approved $5 million for the AIC. Permitting began in Crookston in September 2019, and Lambert was recently hired by Ag Management Solutions that also manages the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. Funding will become available soon, and organizers hope to have as many details worked out to start building fast.
A module-type building will be constructed on the southern edge of Crookston (Ingersoll Avenue and U.S. Highway 75 intersection). While the project has conceptual drawings, an engineering firm hasn’t been hired yet, according to Slunecka.
“Our goal is to have the initial build be large enough for the crush facility, as well as three or four large research bays, in addition to office space for 20 people,” said Slunecka, adding that the facility will also include conferencing and educational space. He expects the new facility will purchase used equipment from other crushing facilities.
“We need to be as cost-effective as possible,” he said. “Processing equipment is very expensive and since this facility is more research than production, we think we can get our best deals with gently-used equipment.”
The crushing facility will feature a mechanical crush, also called a “cold press.”
Another type of crush is called hexane crushing.
“By using a mechanical crush, it’s a more attractive market for some of these oil customers and some of these meal customers,” he said. “You’re also able to have a much smaller cost effective unit. Hexane crushers have to be very large to be cost effective.”
Mechanical crushers can be turned on and off more easily, and they cost less to run too, he added.
The leadership hopes that the AIC can expand with time. Hopefully, successful projects will obtain investors that can build crushing facilities right next door to the AIC.
Currently, Epitome Energy is raising dollars to build a crush plant, and then later build a biodiesel facility that would be located next to the AIC. Vertical Malt, a craft malting company, has also announced they will build in the area.
“A lot of these things is all about people, so you have to have a location that is attractive and functional and a place where your leading people want to come and work and make their home,” Slunecka said. “The AIC will be designed and built not just for expansion, but for opportunities for growth.”