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The proving ground

Got a new product? Let it prove itself. Todd Sisson, who manages AURI’s pilot plant in Crookston, runs trial batches of food and ag-based industrial products for refining and market testing.

“We work directly with clients to help develop their products, refine their processes, develop quality control systems and make test-marketable quantities of their product,” Sisson says. The 4,000-square-foot pilot plant can process vegetables, fruits, cereal grains and other products with its collection of blanchers, mixers, dryers, blenders, freezers, packaging equipment, mills and extruders.

For example, Sisson is helping a rhubarb cooperative with initial processing runs, giving growers time to find markets and build revenues for their own facility. “We bring the rhubarb into the plant … it’s cleaned to remove defects and disinfected to destroy soil-born bacteria. Then it’s rinsed again, blown dry, cut to the size specified by the end user, and frozen in 8-pound bags.”

Sisson brought Forest Edge Winery, which makes rhubarb wine, to the attention of the seven-grower co-op, and the two clients have formed a working relationship. The co-op has also connected with a local jam business and bakeries.

Besides the hands-on work, Sisson investigates market opportunities. He helped a local bean company, once struggling with diminishing markets, to take advantage of fiber opportunities. “We had seen a trend in pet foods integrating more fiber into feed,” Sisson says. He and the client investigated a pea-splitting operation in Canada to see if fiber could be extracted from its waste stream of hulls and splitter-damaged peas.

“We proved fiber could be separated out and concentrated. … As the client looked into it with more depth, he realized the opportunity of turning his bean elevator into a pea-splitting operation, where he is custom-splitting for various companies,” Sisson says. “I believe last year’s production was in excess of 15 million pounds. They’re running about 80,000 pounds of material a month.” Waste pieces are ground and shipped to pet food manufacturers.

To maximize the pilot plant’s usefulness, AURI is expanding beyond new businesses, says Deputy Director Keith Sannes. “We’re making an effort to get to companies already up and running — they have banking lined up and know how to get into the markets. … They may have new product ideas they want to experiment with but can’t dedicate equipment to it. We can work it out in the pilot plant.”

Poplar potential

AURI is invested for the long term

in an alternative fiber crop

AURI hosts one of largest hybrid poplar breeding programs in the country. “We’re producing thousands of new crosses every year,” says Edward Wene, an AURI scientist who works on poplar research and technical assistance to growers.

Why hybrid poplars? They are good candidates for wood products because they mature in only 10 to 15 years, Wene says. Similar to native aspens, they can be used in oriented strandboard or paper products. Although poplars have potential to be a biomass fuel source as well, “presently there are no energy markets,” Wene says. “But there are fiber markets.”

AURI is looking at whether raising poplars can be viable for farmers, Wene says. “There are several things we can do to affect the outcome: improve the yield with proper management, site selection and planting material, and locate in an area where there’s a market.”

Wene is a member of the Minnesota Hybrid Poplar Research Cooperative, formed in 1995. The core group includes Wendell Johnson of the University of Minnesota in Crookston, Bernie McMahon and Bill Berguson of the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, and Don Reimenschneider of the U.S. Forest Service in Rhinelander, Wisc.

Now working with a $180,000 annual state appropriation and an $80,000 cash match from five industry partners and the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers started the cooperative to develop fast-growing and disease-resistant clones and to assist growers.

Each year, controlled pollination in a greenhouse is used to produce 8,000 to 10,000 seedlings for field trials.

“We spread trials around the state to see how different environmental conditions affect growth and disease resistance,” Wene says. Other research includes fertilizer and herbicide trials.

Industry partners International Paper, Boise Cascade, Blandin and Potlatch either own or lease land for commercial trials. “We embed our trials right in their commercial plantations. Before, our researchers had to go out and rent space and do the weed control,” Wene says. “This allows us to have many more trials in more locations.”

The researchers are continuously breeding new varieties. “Hopefully, with new clones, yields will go up,” Wene says. Most are crosses between native cottonwood and European or Asian varieties. “Native cottonwoods are good growing trees, but sometimes they don’t root well. So we bring in varieties with better rooting ability. … It’s not all hit and miss; we know from past experience what combinations work.”

None of the hybrids have been commercialized yet. “The oldest trees are five, six years old, so we are starting to make selections, but none have been field-proven yet,” Wene says. “Before we release a clone, we’ll make sure it meets the fiber industry’s standards and that it doesn’t have any undesirable characteristics. For example, we’ll rule out those with high levels of pigment or low specific gravity.”

Are hybrid poplars economically viable for Minnesota farmers? “One of the problems with a crop you won’t receive a return on for 10 to 15 years is cash flow, return on investment,” Wene says. “But as trends are, with improving yields and increased wood prices, the prospects are looking better all the time.”

Over the past 12 years, about 20,000 poplar acres have been planted in Minnesota, mostly by private landowners with cost sharing from the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

“There are hurdles to overcome,” Wene concludes. “It’s certainly not suitable for everybody because of the up-front cost investment and the location of present markets. Trees grown close to a market will have a higher selling price due to transportation costs.” A site’s yield potential is also an important consideration, Wene says.

“For it to be a widespread alternative crop, it would help to have a government or industry program available to farmers for deferring at least a portion of up-front costs.”

Fixing problems,

affixing labels

AURI’s food lab teaches clients

how to refine and expand retail products

A candy maker doesn’t understand why the oil separates in her fudge. A Mexican foods manufacturer is troubled by cracking tortillas and watery burrito fillings. A lamb co-op making Indian-style entrees doesn’t know where to buy 100 pounds of turmeric. Who do they turn to? Charan Wadhawan, AURI food scientist in Crookston.

“Troubleshooting takes quite a bit of my time,” Wadhawan says. “A lot of people call with problems. I make suggestions on what to do without compromising the quality of their product.”

Wadhawan says entrepreneurs often “don’t know what to do and where to go, so they come to the lab.” To help entrepreneurs understand what they’re getting into, she has them do their own lab work “and I help. It’s a basic lesson, so that in the future, when they expand their product line, they know how to go about it.

“They’ll know how we made their product high-fiber or high-protein, why we replaced one ingredient with another, why we included an additive. They learn quite a bit in the process … and they know if they have problems, they can call me.”

Wadhawan has helped design French Meadow Bakery breads, packed them with touted medicinal ingredients — flaxseeds, spelt, amaranth, soy protein, pumpkinseeds, quinoa, cranberries — and made them tasty. She has analyzed the breads for texture, appearance and nutrition, and calculated nutritional information.

Wadhawan also aided a young woman commercializing her mom’s recipe into Angelica’s Garden Zucchini Relish. Wadhawan standardized the recipe so the product would be identical each time it was made, then scaled it up for mass production. She gave packaging advice, conducted taste tests, sourced ingredients, tested shelf life and ensured compliance with FDA labeling requirements.

Labeling is one of the most essential services she provides. A spaghetti sauce label with sumptuous-looking peppers and tomatoes may stand out from the crowd, but it’s the plain-Jane “Nutrition Facts” label on back that allows it on the grocery shelf.

The FDA is fussy about ingredient lists, standardized serving sizes, nutritional information such as protein, fiber and carbohydrate grams, and Required Daily Allowances of vitamins and minerals. For a start-up company, meeting these requirements can be expensive; every ingredient needs to be analyzed.

As a service to clients, Wadhawan keys recipes into a software program that analyzes more than 20,000 ingredients. Certain processes and unusual ingredients may require lab analysis as well. After all the data is in, the program produces a camera-ready nutritional label at no cost to the client.

“When clients are successful, it’s rewarding,” says Wadhawan, who recently saw bread mixes she helped formulate in a Connecticut shopping mall. “It makes you feel good.”