VIDEO: Minnesota’s AURI finds new uses for ag products
CROOKSTON, Minn. -- David Torgerson's job is promoting Minnesota's wheat industry. So he's a big fan of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, commonly known as AURI."It's good for farmers, good for the economy of the state," says Torge...
CROOKSTON, Minn. - David Torgerson’s job is promoting Minnesota’s wheat industry. So he’s a big fan of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, commonly known as AURI.
“It’s good for farmers, good for the economy of the state,” says Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. “AURI is the go-to organization when we get questions about adding value” to wheat and wheat products.
The nonprofit, largely state-funded institute and its staff of scientists and marketing specialists have been helping Minnesota’s rural economy since 1989. AURI finds new and innovative uses for ag products, adding value to commodities such as wheat, corn and soybeans that are grown in the state.
AURI, among other things, helped to develop the use of wheat in Wheat Scoop pet litter, which is sold nationwide, Torgerson says.
“AURI is really about increasing utilization of, and demand for, ag commodities grown in Minnesota,” says Shannon Schlecht, the institute’s executive director. “Anything that is commercially produced, or has the potential to be commercially produced, in Minnesota - we’re interested in.”
Often working with partners such as commodity groups, AURI provides technical or financial assistance to entrepreneurs to “move ideas to reality,” when and if the concepts are feasible financially and technically, Schlecht says.
If an idea doesn’t appear valid, AURI tells the client, he says.
Ag’s Holy Grail
Value-added agriculture - taking a raw agricultural commodity and converting it into a more valuable processed product - is the Holy Grail of U.S. agriculture, the shared goal of virtually everyone in it.
“A raw commodity has one price, a processed product has another (higher) price,” Schlecht says. “If we can find new uses for the raw commodity it obviously increases the potential return. If we can do it here (in Minnesota) and in an economical way, why not."
Art Brandli, a retired Warroad, Minn., farmer and AURI board member, says the “value-added aspect is so important. It (AURI) has the expertise and a staff that’s very dedicated, and ready to help. It’s one of the best uses of tax dollars that I know of.”
AURI has a $4.5 million budget this fiscal year. About three-quarters is taxpayer money approved by the State Legislature, the rest from federal grants and partnerships with other groups.
Minnesota state budget problems are a concern, but Schlecht says there doesn’t seem to be any sentiment to cut funding for AURI.
Other states also have organizations that promote value-added ag research, but “I’m not aware of anything else quite like us,” Schlecht says. “As a standalone corporation, we do have a unique space. We’re a unique resource.”
AURI has 25 full-time employees, many of them scientists or business experts, and operates sites in Crookston, Waseca, Marshall and St. Paul, Minn., and each focuses on specialized areas of the business. The Crookston site, for instance, specializes in bio-based products and microbiology.
The organization provides services in four general areas: food, biobased products, renewable energy and coproducts, also known as byproducts, such as dried distiller’s grain.
“We do touch a wide range of projects and commodities,” says Jimmy Gosse, a microbiologist at the Crookston site.
AURI will work with about 130 projects this fiscal year, a number that has increased 50 percent from a few years ago. Poor crop prices, which increase the need to find alternative uses, would seem to be at least part of the reason.
Among the projects with which AURI is currently involved:
- Developing new markets for soy protein in food allergen-free soybean varieties.
- Evaluating the potential for pennycress oil and meal. Pennycress, a cover crop, could be a source of oil for biodiesel and meal for livestock feed.
- Conducting a small-scale shrimp feed trial using soybean meal and dried distillers grain, among other ag products.
- Identifying “barriers and opportunities of eco-friendly agricultural wraps and nets” for use in biodegradable materials projects.
The wide range of past AURI projects include:
- An organic flour mill.
- Using ash from the burning of renewable energy to fertilize crops.
- A buffalo-manure compost blend for mulch and fertilizer.
Projects, past and present, are scattered across Minnesota. A few are in the eastern Dakotas, northern Iowa and western Wisconsin, too. Some outside agriculture question the wisdom of value-added agriculture in a world in which many people still are hungry. They wonder why food should be converted to other uses.
Schlecht says he’s heard and understands those concerns.
“But I’m confident that the way technology is advancing, we can continue the traditional role for food while coming up with additional new uses, too,” he says.
AURI works with organic agriculture, as well as conventional ag. Organic ag is an important and growing part of ag in the state, Schlecht says.
Ongoing changes in society and technology create new opportunities, and mean that AURI’s work will never be finished, he says.
“There’s always something new and shiny around the corner for us to take a look at,” Schlecht says. “And we’ll see what the technical and commercial feasibility is.”
Closer to home, but still in ag
Shannon Schlecht wanted to get closer to his roots, in part to help his wife’s career. The North Dakota farm kid, formerly a Washington, D.C.-based executive with the nation’s leading wheat promotion group, has done that.
Schlecht, who had been vice president of policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, took over late last year as executive director of Minnesota’s Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, or AURI.
“There’s never a dull day here at AURI,” which finds new and innovative uses for Minnesota agricultural products, he says.
Ag has always been an important part of Schlecht’s life. He grew up in Enderlin, N.D., where his family farmed, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Dakota State University.
He went on to spend 14 years with U.S. Wheat Associates, which develops new markets for U.S. wheat. He worked in Portland, Ore., Cairo, Egypt, and Washington.
“I had a great career, an exciting career, in the wheat industry,” says Schlecht, 41.
U.S. Wheat Associates develops new export markets for U.S. wheat, working in more than 100 countries worldwide. The group doesn’t buy, sell or process wheat, but says “we do help make it easier for everyone else who does.”
Schlecht continues to work with wheat in Minnesota, but is involved with many other crops and ag products raised there, too.
His wife, Tina, a Minot, N.D., native and a pharmacist by training, had an excellent job opportunity in Minnesota, and the couple agreed to leave Washington and move there.
“She had trailed me (in their respective careers) for several years, and we decided it was my turn to trail her,” Schlecht says.
In searching for a position of his own in Minnesota, Schlecht found “AURI was the organization that kept coming up, the organization that’s doing a lot of cutting-edge things with all these different products and potentials.”
Schlecht, based in St. Paul, where AURI has one of its four locations (Crookston, Waseca and Marshall, Minn., are the others), expects to help occasionally on the family farm in Enderlin. His brother, Shane, now operates the farm and raises wheat, corn, soybeans and cattle.
“I’m looking forward to be able to get back there more often,” Schlecht says.
He also says he “looking forward to being in Minnesota for a while and seeing what this organization can do to further value-added agriculture.”
Jerry Hasnedl, a St. Hilaire farmer, represents Minnesota Farmers Union on AURI’s nine-member board of directors.
“We feel very good about our decision to hire him (Schlecht),” Hasnedl says. “He brings breadth to our organization, and we’re excited about the direction he’s leading us.”