By: Dan Lemke
While the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) is already positioned to provide unique resources to develop innovative uses for agricultural products, a recently awarded federal grant will help it expand capacity to producers to assess and respond to emerging value-added opportunities.
Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, the Agricultural Innovation Center (AIC) awards grants to eligible organizations that provide technical assistance to agricultural producers to help them develop and market value-added agricultural products. AURI was awarded $500,000 and matched 50% of the federal funds through its long-term partnership with the Minnesota Legislature to benefit the state’s agriculture economy.
AURI worked with stakeholders to gauge industry needs and narrow the focus of its application. “With the work being centered on producers, we were looking at how we can serve them best,” said Jennifer Wagner-Lahr, AURI senior director of business development and commercialization.
AURI’s Center will leverage existing programs, the knowledge and expertise of AURI’s project and technical staff, as well as the organization’s unique facilities, to deliver several services to agricultural producers in Minnesota and surrounding states. Federal funds will enable the Center to reach an expanded number of producers. In addition to serving a wide array of value-added agricultural products, Wagner-Lahr said the Agricultural Innovation Center funding will allow AURI to add some additional capabilities in the areas of market research analysis and biogas production.
Through the Center, AURI will offer a variety of one-on-one technical assistance for producers developing value-added agricultural products. Staff will also develop both educational materials and seminars for individual producers interested in furthering value-added agricultural products.
What technical assistance does the Agricultural Innovation Center Offer?
AURI’s newly formed Agricultural Innovation Center will provide direct services to producers in Minnesota and surrounding states. That assistance includes:
Business development services.
The Center will provide direct services and referrals related to feasibility studies and business planning.
Market development services.
The Center will assist agricultural producers with efforts related to marketing plans, branding, customer identification and market intelligence.
Process development services.
The Center will provide engineering services, scale production assessments, systems development and other technical assistance related to the development, implementation, improvement and operations of processes and systems.
Value chain coordination.
The Center will connect agricultural producers to distribution systems, developers, processing facilities and commercial kitchens.
The Center will offer ideation, concept testing, feasibility and cost analysis, demographic and consumer analysis, production analysis, evaluation of packaging and labeling options and brand development.
The Agricultural Innovation Center funding will support the hiring of a market research analyst who can assist producers in evaluating their options for the development of value-added ag products. Wagner-Lahr stated that the product development process can involve a wide range of AURI technical assistance, and that adding a market research analyst will help entrepreneurial producers refine their business and marketing plans.
“One of the things that became clear is that we are missing the deeper market research perspective that could amplify the work of our team and better inform our clients around their opportunity area of interest,” Wagner-Lahr said. “Farmers have a lot of options in terms of what value-added ag products they could produce and where to market them. They’re kind of starting at ground zero.”
“The market research analyst is a new position that we’re bringing on to really help improve that line of sight when it comes to the market and early-on assessment of what market producers want to go after and how best to do it,” Wagner-Lahr explained.
Wagner-Lahr said the market research analyst will help give producers a solid view of where the market is going, what the competition looks like and where there might be particularly good channels for their products.
Adding resources to help farmers and agribusinesses analyze opportunities for biogas production grew out of activities in Minnesota and elsewhere in the country. Minnesota’s passage of the Natural Gas Innovation Act, federal incentives, and low-carbon fuel programs are fostering increased interest in anaerobic digestion of manure and food waste.
“Interest in anaerobic digestion has been growing across the state and nationally,” Wagner-Lahr said. “You have states like Massachusetts banning the landfill of food waste from entities generating a half-ton of food waste or more per week. This has led to a lot of innovation in the state of Massachusetts. The Natural Gas Innovation Act amplified the conversation in Minnesota about how we can utilize waste and feedstocks coming from our farms to produce renewable natural gas.”
“There’s a lot going on right now in terms of different companies and developers looking to get into biogas production to access carbon markets as well as low carbon fuel market incentives,” Wagner-Lahr said. “We know that there are a lot of farmers who are dealing with anaerobic digester companies and developers who want to evaluate the potential of buying their manure for new biogas projects.”
“Farmers have developers knocking on their doors and they’re trying to understand the opportunity. How should I structure an agreement? Who do I need to talk to? What key variables should I analyze? What is my risk? What have other producers done? What is the upside opportunity? There are just so many questions,” Wagner-Lahr explained.
The AIC will provide farmers with the resources they need to answer critical questions and help producers make decisions about potential opportunities.
The Agricultural Innovation Center will provide resources to producers and stakeholders who are involved in potential biogas production from manure or food waste.
Wagner-Lahr said AURI should have the market research analyst and anaerobic digestion specialist staff in place early in 2023. In the meantime, AURI business development and technical staff are available to assist producers who are interested in accessing services through the Agricultural Innovation Center.
AURI has a track record of providing value-added agriculture development assistance that spans more than 30 years. The recent AIC funding is not the first time AURI received federal support.
“Over time, we’ve been developing a stronger and stronger relationship with USDA Rural Development and even starting to have forays and building relationships with USDA Agricultural Marketing Services,” said Lisa Gjersvik, AURI senior director of strategy management. “This funding provides another tool in our toolbox that is an expansion of collaboration with an alignment of priorities of USDA and AURI to benefit Minnesota’s agriculture industry and state economy.”
Information on the Agricultural Innovation Center program is available at auri.org. Interested producers can access the resources provided by the AIC by connecting with AURI’s business development team.