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Food Ag Ideas Week Brought Technology, Innovation and Dynamic Speakers Together

Fresh, exciting new ideas, from beer to bees and data to dollars, dominated the panels and presentations at this year’s Food | Ag | Ideas Week, October 10-15.

This, the second annual event, was hosted by Grow North, an organization that connects food and agriculture entrepreneurs, industry leaders and problem-solvers. At this conference, Grow North promoted an emphasis on visibility, connectivity and growth for Minnesota food and agriculture. Over the course of six days, the conference brought together varying views and deliberate conversations outside their traditional audiences.

The conference kicked off with an event organized by AURI in partnership with Renewing the Countryside, BevSource, AgriGrowth Council and the Artisan Grains Collaborative. From Field to Glass showcased innovations in brewing and distilling with locally sourced agricultural products. This event took place at The Lab, a production facility for beverage creators to brew and ferment recipes. This production facility and taproom features a rotational selection of small batch brewers and a testing facility to ensure quality and consistency for brewers in residence as well as outside producers. The Lab is operated by BevSource, a provider of beverage development, production, sourcing and logistics solutions for new and established beverage visionaries. Brewing and distilling was a popular subject of a panel entitled “Innovating for an Edge.” Sandy Boss Febbo, co-owner of Bang Brewing talked about the use of kernza, a perennial grain boasting a number of environmental benefits. “Kernza provides a lot of benefits; it’s a self-sustaining wheat that’s capable of boosting soil and water health while providing an incredible flavor profile,” Febbo said. Bang Brewing is the third brewery in the state to produce a commercial release using kernza. In addition, Ryan Mihm, head brewer at Finnegan’s Brewing Company, spoke about the use of CDB as an ingredient for brewing.

Innovation remains vital to staying ahead in the brewing and distilling industry with numerous competitors and a constant battle for market share.

The “Brewing Up New Opportunities” panel featured businesses that sell to, buy from, or provide services to brewers, distillers and beverage makers. Each panelist brought a different perspective and provided thoughts on barriers and problems that need to be solved in order to grow this sector of the industry. Adam Wagner, Co-founder, Owner and Operator of Vertical Malt educated the room on the limited variety of malt plants used in brewing operations and the opportunity for the utilization of small grains like barley, wheat or rye. Rob Davis, Director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy talked about his drive to innovate, drawing inspiration from Dr. Marla Spivak, a leading bee scientist whose research led to incorporating flowers on solar farms. This pairing creates a pollinator habitat producing both renewable energy and honey. This approach is currently being utilized by Connexus Energy a company that initially built a pollinator habitat called SolarWise. Eric Sannerud, founding farmer of Mighty Axe Hops, shared his experience starting small, growing his business while still learning how to be a farmer. One of the stated barriers he faced is “growing a new crop in a space where insurance is difficult to acquire for an unknown product like hops in Minnesota,” Sannerud said. With fledgling beginnings, Mighty Axe Hops has grown to become the largest hop farm in Minnesota producing hop varieties for numerous breweries throughout the state and beyond.

The “Unfurling Innovation Through Research and Development” panel explored new developments in brewing and distilling and looked at how research is being utilized to create a positive impact. Topics ranged from product variety to barriers and opportunities for brewers large and small. Matt Hall, Director of Innovation and Pilot services at The Lab discussed the benchmark for quality for brewers, citing consistency as paramount and the capability to work with different grains and ingredients. The Lab gives beverage makers a resource and site to perform pilot runs and test the quality of their recipes. “It can be hard for small brewers to work and develop products when competing with largescale brewers,” Hall said. The variety and changing selection of products at The Lab allows the consumer to experience small batch brews on a rotating basis while delivering feedback and insights to the producer. Data utilization and optimization for benefits beyond production were recurring topics for this panel. Kevin Smith, Professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota shared how we should create a better system that connects field data and how it can benefit production in the brewing world. “We need to figure out barley varieties and what is influencing the type of environment they grow in while creating a positive economic impact,” Smith said. George Annor, Professor of Cereal Chemistry at the University of Minnesota shared his thoughts about the changing demand for flavor. “There is a demand for creating something that is sweet by infusing sweetness and fruity flavors to beer profiles, a trend that is becoming more and more common.” Annor said. Research and development play vital roles in creating products that keep up with the preferences of the consumer.

From Field to Glass featured a range of topics celebrating the diversity of the brewing and distilling industries. It explored opportunities for continued growth in networking, innovation, and research in this burgeoning space. This inaugural event on Day 1 of Food | Ag | Ideas concluded at a well-attended happy hour hosted by Grow North at Finnegan’s Brewing Company in Minneapolis.

The balance of Food | Ag | Ideas Week featured panel discussions, an investors summit, the Maker to Market Showcase and more. The Minnesota History Center was an excellent venue to host the first day of events because it showcases Minnesota’s past and the important role agriculture plays in the state. The center is only steps away from the MN Capitol, where agriculture legislation is often in the spotlight. Every part of the supply chain was represented in the panel discussion, “Unlocking What’s Under Our Feet: Innovation in Regenerative Agriculture.” This forum provided compelling information on a range of regenerative farming practices and their impact on the farm. The topics of discussion included emerging technologies, collaboration, and financial challenges and opportunities for the changing agricultural landscape. One of panelists, Grant Breitkreutz of Stoney Creek Farm in Redwood Falls, shared his thoughts on the impact of regenerative techniques on crop attributes and livestock. “Sustainable agriculture is keeping a living root in the soil at all times.” Breitkreutz said. In fact, the utilization of cover crops on his farm not only changed the water cycle on his land, it also led to reduced synthetic inputs, improved soil health and boosted protection for the land and livestock.

Measuring the impact of regenerative agriculture remains a challenge for farmers who are considering employing these kinds of approaches. While the jury is still out on how these practices are being adopted by the Minnesota farming community at large, it is clearly gaining interest.
In response to that trend, the Forever Green Initiative is spearheading opportunities for Minnesota farmers to incorporate cropping systems which provide ecosystem benefits. The project focuses on the development of cover cropping systems and perennial crops for Minnesota. Industry experts are looking at programs like Forever Green to lead the way toward a future of greater agricultural sustainability approaches across the state.

The panels continued into the afternoon with “A Conversation on the Future of Farming” panel, including discussions about new agriculture practices and technology, financial realities and innovation in the field of farming. The panel consisted of growers and producers from different fields and disciplines including Carolyn Olson, Co-Owner of Olson Organics of Cottonwood and AURI Board member.

The second day was held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The Walker is an internationally acclaimed art museum that offers several unique spaces for presentations and networking alongside their galleries, theater and sculpture garden.

At the Walker, there were exciting discussions and presentations about the subject of the incorporation of technology at the farm level. With regard to a growing population, there is a concerted emphasis to expand production output on the farm and better understand the data that might enable those goals. In fact, the “Bridging the Gap: Big Data, Tech Innovation and On Farm Realities” panel provided a robust conversation about start-up companies that are developing technology solutions leveraging farm level data and its impact on the farmer.

Ag technology is continuing to gather momentum as corporations and entrepreneurs enter the space by bringing technology to farming. This is creating real-time information about soil moisture, irrigation forecasting, level sensors in grain silos and bulk tanks, along with data and automation, which is accessible via smart devices.

The panel discussed how the food and ag landscape is evolving and what will impact the farmer as they move further into the digital world and incorporate more on-farm data.

“Investing in Growth: A Conversation on Capital Across Food and Agriculture” panel rounded out the week’s activities bringing together thought leaders from different capital sources to discuss trends, growth and ways to catalyze investment planning and strategy. Digitization and its impact across the value chain in food and ag was a subject of discussion by Sanjeev Krishnan, Chief Investment Officer and managing director of S2G Ventures. “When a channel gets digitized, that is when you see the most market share. Today, nearly 8% of grocery is digitized,” Krishnan said. Seed 2 Growth Ventures is a multi-stage food and agriculture venture fund investing in entrepreneurs whose products and services meet the shifting demands for healthy and sustainable food. The adoption of technology into the ag sector was a topic of discussion, led by Taylor Moore with Carlson Private Capital Partners who mentioned the high amount of technology adopted in the ag industry–from fertilizer to seed tech. The power of the consumer was also front and center in this panel discussion. “Riches are in the niches in the food marketplace,” Krishnan said. A lot of commodity producers are interested in commodity scale but should be encouraged to look at specific players like PURIS, a plant protein company that started as a niche operation and now has a partnership with Cargill. Investment continues to excite and provide growth for players big and small in food and agriculture arenas.

This year’s Food | Ag | Ideas Week was filled with timely subjects, high-profile speakers and vigorous panel discussions and conversations that lasted well beyond their scheduled times. “The goal of Food | Ag | Ideas Week is to showcase our community and build connections that last beyond the week of programming.” said Lauren Mehler Pradhan Managing Director of Grow North.

Food | Ag | Ideas Week was an exceptional forum for collaboration, with 25 sponsors and over 1,000 attendees. Planning is already underway for next year’s event to include more success stories and exciting panelists. For more information about the events and speakers, visit