AURI Connects’ New Program: Fields of Innovation

AURI works to build a network around new and emerging crops in Minnesota.

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) launched a new program called Fields of Innovation, which focuses on bringing together Minnesota’s ag and food value chains to build capacity and successful commercialization of new and emerging crops.

Created as part of the AURI Connects sub-brand, Fields of Innovation will take a contemporary, cross-platform approach to content sharing and connection building. The program will combine virtual and in-person events with an online networking group and resources. The first virtual Fields of Innovation events will take place in October 2020. Events will highlight promising new crops, examine market opportunities and production practices, as well as create awareness with participants on new technologies that can expand markets for existing crops.

“Fields of Innovation is a dedicated platform to share information with Minnesota’s agricultural industry around new and niche crop opportunities,” says AURI’s Executive Director Shannon Schlecht. “I hope this platform will result in adding another crop alternative for producers to consider in parallel with awareness of new ingredients for processors to utilize. We hope engaging the entire value-chain in integrated discussions will accelerate new and niche crop adoption by creating connections around the demand and supply needs, with the goal of mitigating risk and adoption concerns.”

The Fields of Innovation program took its initial inspiration from the Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable (MNRER), another AURI Connects program. Since 2006, the MNRER has served as a platform to proactively address challenges and opportunities in renewable energy, specifically related to energy derived from agricultural crops and biomass. Action from the MNRER often relates to creating new ventures and collaborative research projects, spurring technology awareness, improving operating efficiencies at the processing level, understanding workforce needs, and networking for more than 500 individuals from 200 organizations across the state, region, nation and globe.

Like the MNRER, Fields of Innovation aims to offer a platform for AURI, its partners and other interested stakeholders to come together to advance markets and uses for new and emerging crops in Minnesota. Connecting innovation and market development, Fields of Innovation aims to build a strong ecosystem for new and emerging crops, giving the state’s ag producers and value chain partners new, sustainable options to diversify and thrive.

“Value-added agriculture begins with what our farmers produce and relies upon linkages from the farm all the way to the consumer,” says Jen Wagner-Lahr, AURI’s senior director of commercialization. “Innovations in new crops, new technologies and changing consumer demand all offer tremendous opportunity to create new linkages and new value-added ag products.”

With its multi-crop focus, Fields of Innovation aims to provide a clearinghouse for the latest crops by creating opportunities for stakeholders to expand their networks, identify synergies in efforts and build new collaborations.

Outside of scheduled events, a key component to this effort will be the Fields of Innovation Facebook group. This online networking opportunity will allow any interested parties to receive the latest updates in emerging crops and engage other interested members in discussions with other members.

“If you are thinking about bringing a new crop to market in Minnesota, we want to hear from you,” says Matthew Leiphon, the Project Manager for Fields of Innovation. “We want this to be inclusive and action oriented. Part of the value of Fields of Innovation’s multi-crop approach is that we can build the program to fit the conversation’s needs. We can do an event focused entirely on one crop or we can bring in people focused on multiple different crops and technologies that fit a certain niche.”

Fields of Innovation’s initial programming will focus on current AURI projects with Kernza® perennial grain, winter camelina, pennycress, alfalfa and hemp. New market opportunities such as ecosystem services markets and unique varieties of traditional crops will also be included in future agendas. To learn more about the program’s current offerings, go to www.auri.org/fields-of-innovation/.


New and Emerging Crops in Minnesota

Alfalfa

While alfalfa is not a new crop in Minnesota, AURI is currently working with researchers at the University of Minnesota to establish a more diverse portfolio of high-value, alfalfa-based products. Development of new and emerging processing technologies and applications may add non-ruminant uses to alfalfa-based products, potentially providing Minnesota producers with new, profitable marketing options.

Camelina

Camelina, is a short-season oilseed cover crop high in both oil/fat (30-38%) and protein (25-30%) Thus, it can be used to produce both oil and protein ingredients. For camelina to be a feasible source for plant protein, more research is necessary on extraction methods, processing technologies, functionality and nutritional quality. AURI is currently working with Central Lakes College, University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative and other partners to address these questions and identify uses for camelina in the food, biofuel, bioproduct and livestock feed industries.

Pennycress

Being an oilseed crop, pennycress has high oil/fat and protein content. AURI experts are conducting research and outreach aimed at commercializing new pennycress-based products and technologies as part of a multi-partner, five year, $10 million project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). These research efforts are focused on optimizing and increasing production and building sustainable supply chains for the crop in the Midwest
and beyond.

Hemp

The production of industrial hemp became legal in Minnesota after the 2014 Farm Bill shifted the responsibility of regulating hemp farming from the federal government to the states. Its production is still limited and heavily controlled. In 2016, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) began its first hemp pilot program with 37 acres being planted the first year and 2,100 acres the second. Currently, there are few Minnesota processors of industrial hemp and only processed (non-viable) seed can cross state borders.

Kernza®

Kernza® is a new domesticated grain introduced by The Land Institute that is now being developed for commercial use in Minnesota. It originates from a forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) and is a cousin of wheat. AURI is working with the University of Minnesota Forever Green Initiative and Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District (SCSWCD) to identify and test new commercial uses for Kernza®. Grain harvested this year from plots in Minnesota will be used to test and develop new food and beverage products and pursue pilot projects in collaboration with central
Minnesota businesses.

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services is an emerging market opportunity that spans the agriculture and food value chain. The environmental benefits that specific agricultural practices provide—such as clean water and air, flood prevention, healthy soils, greenhouse gas reduction, and wildlife habitat—are collectively known as ecosystem services. When ecosystem services can be measured and quantified—for example, the amount of carbon stored in soil—they can be bought and sold through markets known as ecosystem or environmental markets. Numerous opportunities are on the rise for supply chain market development outside of formal carbon and water quality traded credits. This includes strategic supply chains focused on transparency and traceability, habitat and biodiversity, regenerative agriculture practices, waste-to-energy and other “seal of approval” or “sustainably-sourced” standards.

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