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Telling the Tales of Innovation

As an innovative nonprofit organization just getting itself established, AURI leaders understood the need to communicate with various audiences. AURI had begun operating autonomously in 1989 and needed to inform stakeholders about what the organization was doing, its progress and successes, as well as news items from the world of agriculture innovation.

The solution devised by AURI staff and directors was to publish a quarterly newspaper. Former Communications Director Cindy Dorn had just joined AURI after previously owning and publishing a
rural Minnesota newspaper, so she took the concept and implemented it. In January 1992, the first issue
of Ag Innovation News rolled off the presses for delivery to 4,000 recipients.

While the organization needed to share information about its activities, there was also a desire to make the publication educational and fun to read.

“We had a lot of projects that were scientific by nature, so we needed a way to make the information reader-friendly,” says Dorn. “We also had a lot of brochures describing our programs, so we decided to condense our communication tools into one piece.”

Telling Stories

Dorn headed up the early communication efforts that involved several staff members and a handful of outside writers. It was soon apparent to the team that to foster agricultural innovation, Ag Innovation News needed to tell stories. The newspaper couldn’t just relay information about what AURI was doing, it needed to shine a light on the challenges and successes ag-based businesses and entrepreneurs faced when trying to commercialize new uses for agricultural products.

“Every person has a story and every product has a story,” Dorn says. “There’s a reason we have wheat-based cat litter. Someone had the crazy idea that this might work.”

Dorn, subsequent communication directors and writers have carried on this tradition of storytelling for the past quarter century. In all that time, the newspaper held to the principle of reporting the successes and challenges of entrepreneurship, innovation and value-added agriculture.

“There was always a wild idea and an entrepreneur willing to give up his retirement fund to invest in an idea,” Dorn says. “When someone is considering an idea, they needed to read and hear about people who made it and those who didn’t.”

Because of Minnesota’s agricultural diversity, there is rarely a shortage of AURI clients or innovative projects to highlight. Over the course of its publishing, Ag Innovation News has included articles ranging from on-farm cheese production and agricultural biomass-powered greenhouses to biobased plastics and the birth of Minnesota’s biofuels industry. Innovative companies have developed ag-based fire suppression products, ethnic meat products and methane digesters. Their stories and hundreds like them have filled the pages of
Ag Innovation News for the past two and a half decades.

While Ag Innovation News tells the stories of Minnesota businesses and entrepreneurs, ideas and initiatives brought by AURI’s staff are often industry leading. Though not attached to any companies or entrepreneurs, expert staff recognize emerging opportunities worthy of further evaluation. These forward-thinking projects also provided ideas for enlightening articles.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Other than the very first publication, Duluth-based photographer Rolf Hagberg’s work has been part of every Ag Innovation News issue. Hagberg’s photography features prominently throughout the issues.

That’s not by accident.

From the beginning, Dorn’s vision was to incorporate images that did more than just supplement the story. The vivid photographs were meant to draw readers into the pages to learn more.

For Hagberg, the process of getting compelling images involves more than simply showing up at a business or farm to take some photos.

“I first try to figure out more about who they are and what they do, then imagine photos of how I can represent that,” Hagberg says.

Hagberg says photo shoots usually involved portraits of the people involved along with product shots. But he was always on the lookout for powerful images.

“I knew the story would be told in the writing, but my goal is always to find the magic photo. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes we needed to do something fun,” Hagberg says.

Hagberg’s fun has involved convincing an AURI client to lie on the floor with his head protruding from a cardboard box filled with biodegradable packaging peanuts. One on-farm shoot Hagberg had to photograph goats from atop his van. Still another time involved having AURI staff blow wheat flour from a small PVC pipe through an open flame to capture the resulting mini-explosion.

“I love the fact that I’ve been able to be creative,” Hagberg says. “I like that they have faith that I’ll be able to come back with something we can use.”

From relatively humble beginnings, Ag Innovation News has grown, matured and now goes to more than 12,000 subscribers with thousands more viewing it online. Schools, legislators, farmers and entrepreneurs all receive the latest news from AURI. For 25 years, Ag Innovation News has shown the power of the entrepreneurial spirit and highlighted that innovation never stops.

A Writer’s Thoughts on AIN

My first introduction to Ag Innovation News came while I was a television news director. I would glance through various publications looking for stories that worked well as local stories. From the beginning, something about this publication resonated with me – something very real about the people in the articles and something very noble about AURI’s mission.

Little did I know that not long after seeing Ag Innovation News for the first time, I would go to work for AURI. I was blessed to be communications director for more than 15 years and deeply involved with Ag Innovation News. It has been my pleasure to share the stories of agriculture innovation and the people who drive the ideas.

Although I left AURI in 2011, I still occasionally write pieces for the publication, which is an honor. More than 20 years after first laying eyes on it, I still think there’s something special about AURI and Ag Innovation News.

Here’s to the next 25.