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Finding the extra value in Minnesota's agriculture

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute started nearly 30 years ago to investigate new ways to use commodities and create new revenue streams for Minnesota farmers. The institute works with individual projects as well as its stakeholders to find the extra value in Minnesota-produced products.

Alan Doering's headshot against a background of blurred green trees.
Alan Doering
Contributed / Agricultural Utilization Research Institute
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WASECA, Minn. — Alan Doering loves his job as a scientist in the pilot lab for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, not just because it helps Minnesota producers, but because it's something new every day.

Doering, senior scientist for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, said there's no average day at the pilot lab in Waseca, where he's in charge of managing client projects and collecting and reporting on data related to applied research and product development.

"Some days you're covered in dust," said Doering, who was recently a guest on the Agweek Podcast. "We were working on a food product that is a natural colorant one summer, and we were sweating, and everywhere this dust got to on your face in the sweat, it turned your skin purple."

Minnesota's ag institute

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute started nearly 30 years ago to investigate new ways to use commodities and create new revenue streams for Minnesota farmers. Working with producers, entrepreneurs and agribusinesses, AURI helps develop new uses for agricultural products through science and technology, while partnering with businesses to commercialize them.

"Our goal has always been to add value to Minnesota agriculture," said Doering, who has been a scientist with AURI for 22 years.

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Doering said there are two alleys in which AURI conducts its work. The first is with projects, in which a processor, entrepreneur or producer has an idea for a product that they need assistance with getting off the ground.

"You come to us, share your idea, fill out a project application, and we can provide assistance," said Doering. "We have scientific staff here to provide assistance, but we also have the pilot labs — so if it involves developing a pelleted product, or you want to run something through an anaerobic digester, and the list goes on, we have those capabilities."

There's also the initiative side to AURI, in which the institute sits down with its stakeholders every two years to find out their key concerns requiring research.

"Then we'll develop initiatives that are public information, that will help support their needs," said Doering.

Doering said what he likes most about his job is seeing the products AURI has had a hand in creating that are being used in the world today.

"We have seen so many different projects, and I guess what's most rewarding is when you see different advertisements in magazines, or when you're going through a grocery store or or farm store, and you can point at products where AURI provided assistance or helped get them to that market place," said Doering.

Doering, who grew up on a farm south of Mankato, Minnesota, continues to be actively involved in agriculture and farming crops and livestock.

"This job keeps me connected to agriculture, and having a pulse on changes that are occurring," he said. "And that continues to add value to my position."

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sWheat Scoop

Many successful products have come out of AURI's pilot lab in Waseca, where Doering works, including one that cat owners will find familiar — sWheat Scoop Clumping Natural Cat Litter, which can be found in Walmart, Target or any major pet store.

The company, which Doering said AURI has worked with for over 20 years, took wheat that could not be utilized for human applications or food grade applications, and developed a cat litter.

"And it's not just developing a cat litter, it's really identifying the unique characteristics it brings, such as clumping, clump hardness, how easy is it to remove from the litterbox, and most of all, how well does it control ammonia because there's some natural enzymes that help to control ammonia," said Doering. "So that product has been commercialized, and it's been out there for at least 30 years, and you can see it on many store shelves."

Doering said the cat littler is a "perfect example" of value added agriculture.

"It utilizes about 10,000 acres of wheat or a wheat byproduct within that product," said Doering of the cat litter. "And it's all produced in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, and that company just continues to grow."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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