Adding value to farming

AURI is making a lasting impact at its Marshall facilities

Rolf Hagberg Photography Ben Swanson and Dr. Michael Stutelberg conduct research at the AURI Chemical Analysis Laboratory on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.

MARSHALL– With a focus on food, renewable energy, biobased products and coproducts, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) has been at the forefront of numerous innovations through its resources and research for clients that are making a large impact throughout the region and the entire state of Minnesota.

Through applied research, its AURI Connects program and hands-on scientific assistance, “AURI offers unique resources designed to help develop new uses and value additions to Minnesota-grown agricultural products. We are here to help you find new uses for traditional, unexplored or overlooked resources.”

Dating back to its formation in 1987 by the Minnesota State Legislators, AURI has maintained a large footprint in the city of Marshall on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.

Currently there are five laboratories within the SMSU campus, including an Analytical Chemistry Laboratory, a Biobased Products Laboratory, a Food Laboratory, a Meat Laboratory and a Food Product Evaluation and Sensory Laboratory. AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht says one the biggest areas of interest among clients is dealing with food products at the Food Laboratory led by Ben Swanson.

“We have a number of clients that we work with every year (from) producers to entrepreneurs (who) may not have a food science background for example, so we can help navigate that journey for them,” said Schlecht. “We have two food scientists on staff and a business development person on staff in the food area that can help chart that path and set the milestones of moving that forward. It could be anything from new cheese products to different granola products. So, looking at different pizza crusts for example. We do things in the area of even helping in the functional foods space.”

At the Biobased Products Laboratory led by Dr. Michael Stutelberg, a project currently in development surrounding an alternative use of soybeans has the potential to make a large impact on the region.

“One of our signature projects we’ve had lately is using soybean oil and helping demystify or de-risk utilizing biobased products as a road-sealant application, and that’s mainly using a lot of agricultural products as raw ingredients and then applying those to road surfaces to help extend the life of roads,” said Schlecht. “We’ve been doing a lot of data analysis and scientific studies around how can that help extend the road life and what does it mean from an economic point of view.”

Carolyn Olson, one of 11 Board of Directors at AURI and co-owner of a local organic farm just south of Cottonwood with her husband Jonathan, has first-hand knowledge of the impact that projects like this can have on the agricultural sector. The developments surrounding the new soybean use in road sealants circles back to AURI’s ultimate goal of bringing maximum value to crops.

“Basically, what AURI is doing is not recommending that farmers farm a certain way or grow certain products, their focus is more on taking what’s been grown and trying to find uses for it that are helpful and that will bring more value to that crop,” said Olson.

One such crop is hemp, which was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill which removed it from the Controlled Substances Act. Local farmers interested in farming hemp have turned to AURI for its research in the field which includes a comprehensive report on the industry called “Building an Industrial Hemp Industry in Minnesota.”

“In the area of hemp, which is probably the newest major push of an alternative crop, a lot of farmers are looking at it as a potential alternative crop because of the potentials down the road for value, but what we needed to do is look at the whole industry and say, ‘how can we do this so we don’t flood the market too early,'” said Olson. “They’re not recommending that farmers grow it or don’t grow it, they’re trying to give you a “this is the state of the market” and this is what we can do with this so far, and we’re still coming up with ideas on what we can do to use more of the plant, so you get more value out of it.”

In addition to utilizing AURI’s research efforts to maximize value of the hemp crops, farmers who choose to enter the business and farm hemp have taken advantage of its laboratories in Marshall that can calculate THC content as industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC. Over at the Waseca Facility, AURI even has a machine that separates all of the parts of the hemp plant for simpler processing.

“They’re doing research continually on different processing methods and looking at many different angles of the hemp industry to figure out where we need to focus as a state to have good processing and a good market outlet for the farmers that choose to grow it,” said Olson.

From research and the resources available through AURI to its analytical equipment and everything in between, AURI is a valuable asset for clients looking to make the most of their product or crops.

“Every employee of AURI in the various lab locations–they’re so positive. And they want to help people bring their products to market. Or they want to help them formulate it so they can use it how they want,” said Olson. “And it’s pretty cool because everybody is so forward-thinking and positive that you can’t help but catch that positivity.”

AURI’s forward-thinking mentality has generated over $142 million in economic activity in Minnesota since its inception over 30 years ago with numerous innovations developed right here in Marshall.


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