For over a century, agriculture has driven innovation. From the steel plow to the tractor to genetically modified crops, the industry has continually grabbed the bull by its horns to produce food, fiber and fuel to a growing population.

As the industry continues to advance, the Ag Innovation Campus (AIC) aims to host cutting-edge breakthroughs in agriculture.

“We’re going to develop and process products that consumers want today and tomorrow, not yesterday,” AIC Acting CEO Tom Slunecka said. “That’s the whole point of this center.”

In fall 2022, the facility marked two years since it held a groundbreaking ceremony alongside farmer leaders, Slunecka and Gov. Tim Walz.

“This is bold,” the governor said at the event. “There’s no place in the world that has something like this.”

The Crookston-based project will be built in three phases. Phase 1 – the crush plant – is slated to commence operations in March 2023. An office complex and research labs comprise phase 2 and rentable discovery bays will round out the project as phase 3.

“The AIC is unique and very exciting,” said Bill Paulsen, AIC plant manager. “There is a lack of a place people can go to to do their research and then go run their product through a crush facility and understand what it does on a bigger scale than a lab. Long term, our plan is to provide the ability for people across the country to research their products.”

Team effort

While farmers were busy planting, growing and harvesting their crops, construction on the AIC plowed ahead.

“The building is 90% complete and everything is moving on schedule,” said Slunecka, who’s also CEO of Ag Management Solutions, the Mankato-based group that oversees Minnesota Soybean. “The grain handling equipment is beginning to arrive, and the installation of the crush equipment will start in November.”

By opting for pre-cast walls that could be poured over during the winter, the building was erected in June.

“We literally saved eight months with pre-cast walls. Because we did the site work last fall, this spring we were able to go in, dig the footings and set the building up,” said AIC construction consultant Brian Ruschy, owner of Brian Ruschy Construction and Consulting. “Additionally, the Wells pre-cast building really lends itself to a food grade building, meeting FISMA requirements.”

A project of this scale requires an extraordinary amount of teamwork. With the help of Advanced Grain Handling, Wells, Innes Construction and Peterson Sheet Metal, AIC has gone relatively smoothly despite the myriad roadblocks laid down by the pandemic and supply chain issues.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of good contractors working on this project,” Ruschy said. “It’s been enjoyable watching everyone on this project work together.”

Investing in the future

Without industrious people manning the ship, a project like the AIC couldn’t be successful. That’s why Energy Management Solutions was hired to curate a workforce that will take the AIC from an idea to a reality.

With over a decade of experience, Energy Management Solutions has operated facilities across the Midwest and is already in the process of hiring a maintenance manager and a plant manager.

“Whenever possible, we always want to hire local people,” said Paulsen, Energy Management Solutions CEO. “We also always look for an opportunity to bring someone back home that’s from the area.”

Along with recruiting talented individuals, the AIC is actively seeking industry partners to bring the next two phases of the project to life.

“Major regional companies are coming on board with many national groups contacting us to learn what the Ag Innovation Campus is all about,” said Slunecka.

One such company is Farmers Union Enterprises, which recently signed on as a major sponsor of the AIC, joining the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute and several other groups. Farmers Union Enterprises consists equally of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin’s Farmers Union state organizations, which have equal ownership of Farmers Union Industries, LLC. The organization is based in Redwood Falls.

“It’s an investment into the future that will provide opportunities for agriculture,” said Gary Wertish, president of Farmers Union Enterprises and Minnesota Farmers Union. “Farmers Union organizations are grassroots organizations that have been around for a long time, advancing policies for family farmers, and we look at this project the same way – it will advance the economic viability of family farms.”

The AIC has many ways for groups to participate and all inquiries are welcome. Sponsorship is the best way to get a closer look at the many new technologies with the potential to reach full commercialization scale at the AIC.

The Ag Innovation Campus is on the cusp of making waves in the agriculture industry. In the coming months, as phase one construction is finalized and talent acquired, Slunecka is optimistic the facility will continue generating support from entities across the region, state and nation. But above all, the AIC will give birth to the next generation of agriculture and cultivate economic growth in the Crookston area.

“As construction begins on phase two and three, we hope that Crookston becomes a new center of ag exploration,” said Slunecka.

If interested in building a career at the Ag Innovation Campus, please contact Bill Paulsen at 605.216.5010 or at bill.paulsen@emsplantmanagement.com.