By Dan Lemke
Created by legislation in 1987 as part of the Greater Minnesota Corporation, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute began operating as a stand-alone entity in 1989 with the mission of improving the economy of rural Minnesota through value-added opportunities for the state’s agricultural commodities.
AURI is a non-profit corporation that also maintains a strong and critical partnership with the Minnesota legislature. The state has been a key collaborative partner during the 30-year journey. Over this time, AURI has maintained offices and laboratories in rural Minnesota, including Crookston, Marshall and Waseca. It also operated prior to 2003 in Morris. It also has a small presence in the Twin Cities.
To mark its 30th anniversary, some of AURI’s longest-serving employees offer their recollections into the organization’s evolution and offer a glimpse into the future.
“The mid-1980s were a devastating time for agriculture with extremely low commodity values,” says former state Sen. Roger Moe, who was instrumental in the creation of AURI. “Agriculture needed to find new uses for its production and Minnesota needed to find a way to add value to productivity and help farmers — this led to the creation of AURI.”
Michael Sparby came to AURI in 1996 after working for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office and interning at the World Trade Corporation where he tracked the legislation creating AURI. He is now senior project strategist.
“I was highly intrigued by the value-added mission,” Sparby says. “I grew up on a family farm that was lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s, so agriculture is near and dear to my heart.”
Sparby, former general manager of AURI’s Morris office, says the biggest changes he has seen in the organization during his more than two decades at AURI is the service delivery structure.
“Project development and technical services were two separate units then and they didn’t always connect,” Sparby says. “We’ve evolved to the point where it’s an extreme team approach. Project and technical staff bring to bear both projects and initiatives. Our process now is highly systematic and collaborative. We’ve become more efficient and effective in delivering on our mission.”
An important factor in AURI’s present and future success is listening, he added. AURI initiated a stakeholder analysis program nearly 20 years ago. AURI staff sits down with partners and stakeholders to discover what opportunities and market barriers they see in their agriculture sector. Those activities frequently lead to public domain research that helped to identify market opportunities.
“We went from being reactionary to almost being predictive,” Sparby says.
AURI offers unique programs and facilities. Equally important are AURI’s networks for connecting resources.
“The number one value we provide is our networks and the ability to work with universities, government and industry of all sizes across pretty much any value chain. I can’t think of many industries in which we don’t have contacts,” Sparby says.
With 30 years in the rearview mirror, the future holds plenty of need for AURI assistance, he says.
“Ideas are always going to be there,” Sparby says. “Trends happen and helping companies to react to those trends will always be our sweet spot.”
Senior director of strategy management Lisa Gjersvik joined the AURI staff in Waseca in 1989, just months after the organization incorporated.
“When I first joined AURI, I had never thought of working in agriculture,” Gjersvik says. “I had no ag background, but the organization looked intriguing. The more I’ve been around people with good, exciting ideas, the less I ever wanted to leave.”
Gjersvik says working for a small organization with a big role to play in making a difference in the landscape of Minnesota and keeping rural areas vital made a personal difference for her.
Through the years, Gjersvik noted AURI has remained market-driven. The organization’s mission to foster long-term economic benefit to Minnesota has not waivered, although delivering on that mission has changed with the times and needs.
“Early on, we were reactive, working with one company at a time. As we’ve evolved, we recognized we could make a greater impact if we looked at an entire industry and did research into what’s holding the industry back,” Gjersvik says. “We take that information and get it into the hands of people who can use it through our innovation networks. We’re always evolving to deliver the greatest impact that we can.”
Having been a part of AURI for nearly its entire existence, Gjersvik has seen how organizational changes have helped maintain relevance.
“We’ve added and eliminated different programs over the years based on historical or potential impact,” Gjersvik says. “We look for programs and projects with the greatest impact potential and then apply the resources to move them forward. Also, clients have told us how AURI assistance adds credibility to their efforts. Our reputation is that of an enabler. That’s a terrific reflection of how AURI is seen.”
There’s hardly an agricultural product or ag-based coproduct that Alan Doering hasn’t tested or manipulated. His role as scientist at AURI’s coproducts lab in Waseca means he’s worked with animal manures, crops and agricultural processing coproducts of all types to create value-added uses.
Doering joined AURI in 2000, providing technical services in the coproduct utilization lab. He’s now a senior scientist for coproducts.
“To see a client’s or company’s idea reach commercialization is what motivates me,” Doering says.
Doering says a key to AURI’s success lies in the hands-on approach the organization takes.
“We get to know the clients. We work closely with them and have a great investment in their success,” he says.
Minnesota businesses and the state’s economy have benefited from AURI. Doering points to R&D efforts for creating products such as chemical surfactants (Preference and Destiny), Pet Care Systems’ sWheat Scoop cat litter, assisting Minnesota’s biodiesel industry and if you talk with him, he’ll list countless others as examples of AURI’s contributions to the agricultural industry.
“We’ve been around, so now we get clients referred to us because processing groups are aware of us and what we’re doing,” Doering says. “People understand better who we are and what we do.”
With that industry recognition and a constantly changing agriculture economy, Doering believes there will be many more needs for AURI services far beyond AURI’s 30th year.
“People will always need help with product development and how we help will advance with them,” Doering says. “There will always be need whether it’s in food, coproducts, renewable energy or biobased materials.”
In 2018, AURI conducted an economic impact report to analyze the economic activity generated by businesses that AURI assisted from fiscal years 2011 through 2017. The results showed a direct link between AURI, the clients it serves and the overall health of the state’s economy. The report further underscored that the economic contributions produced by AURI are dynamic and widespread.
For example, businesses that AURI assisted created $76.9 million of economic activity between FY 2011 and 2017. These businesses created 605 jobs and paid an estimated $6.5 million in labor income.
Those businesses plan to create and retain an additional 606 jobs in the next five years. Additionally, clients that received AURI assistance project the generation of a total estimated potential of $157.8 million in economic activity, including 966 jobs and $28.2 million in labor income.
Lemke writes from Madison Lake.