Crookston, Minn. — Fifteen years ago, Teresa Spaeth left suburban Indianapolis for rural Mahnomen to help take over her husband’s family farm. Today she is totally immersed in agriculture and rural life. Her expertise and devotion to rural economic development led to Spaeth’s appointment as AURI’s executive director in February. The position started March 5.
Spaeth was unanimously selected by the AURI board of directors to succeed Edgar Olson, who retired after more than eight years as AURI’s executive director. “I feel honored that the board selected me to carry on AURI’s traditions,” Spaeth says. “Minnesota agriculture can be assured we will continue to strengthen value-added agriculture across the state.”
An Indiana native, Spaeth met her husband Andy in Indianapolis, where he was studying commodity training. “He decided he wanted to come home and take over the family farm,” Spaeth says. They now raise corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and sunflowers. Her interest in value-added agriculture piqued while working as comptroller at Minnesota Dehydrated Vegetable in Fosston, Minn. In 1998, she joined AURI, then earned an MBA from the University of North Dakota. “I focused on rural and business development, did some research in best practices and wrote my master’s thesis on rural value-added agriculture,” Spaeth says. At the same time, she was enrolled in a Southwest State University rural leadership program.
In 2003, Spaeth left AURI to head the Small Business Development Center at Bemidji State University, but returned as AURI director of programs and finance in 2004. Spaeth says when she first joined AURI, project funding was structured like a loan program where applications were accepted or denied. Now, evaluating projects is a hands-on approach where clients work with AURI teams, including business and scientific staff. Before a project is funded, the team evaluates both the project’s market and technical feasibility.
Though AURI focuses most of its efforts on a project’s technical merits, it is critical to understand a project’s chances of surviving a competitive marketplace, Spaeth says. “Maybe you can make a baseball bat out of wheat, but if nobody wants to buy one, why make it?” For market feasibility, AURI contracts with a Southwest State University marketing center in Marshall.
Value-added agriculture, “is on a great upward trend,” Spaeth says. “I think the bio trend is going to be interesting for a long time to come.”
While producers were once the main bioproduct promoters, “Now the rest of the world is waking up and they’re starting to say, ‘Hey, there is something to all this renewable stuff.’
“Everything is fair game, whether bio-energy, nutraceuticals or using coproducts,” Spaeth says. “What’s connecting rural and urban now is value-added agriculture.”
“We are at a point where advanced, technological thinking is intersecting with agriculture to open up a world of opportunities.”
AURI will continue what it does best: providing hands-on technical services, feasibility assistance and laboratory access, Spaeth says. “We are focused on not duplicating what someone else is doing,” so AURI connects clients with other resources — whether a university researcher, small business development center, marketing consultant or other specialist.
“There isn’t anyone on staff who doesn’t have a passion for value-added agriculture and Minnesota,” Spaeth says. “We’ve built something that takes everyone’s dedication and uses it to make us a better, more effective organization.”
“We welcome Teresa to her new position; she has our full support,” says AURI Board Chair Al Christopherson. “The organization has earned a high level of credibility and we expect that growth will continue under her leadership.”