Working out the links

Crookston, Minn. — Minnesota’s top cash crop could travel the world as food and drink if a new farmer-owned processor of identity-preserved and food-grade soybeans brings enough investment on board.

SoyLink, LLC, a subsidiary of the producer-owned cooperative FarmConnect and a partner with investment group Soy Driven Enterprises, started an equity drive in February. SoyLink expects to sign up about 1,000 farmers with a total investment of $8 to $13 million, says Brent Sorenson, FarmConnect CEO.

FarmConnect members include 649 Minnesota crop and livestock producers. The co-op uses a processing plant in Oskaloosa, Iowa, where identity-preserved soybeans are made into powder for soy drinks and dairy replacement products, Sorenson says.

SoyLink is “an opportunity for (producers) to integrate into the supply chain of the food system and share the retail dollar,” says FarmConnect President Gary Sabolik. “This is a real model project to carry some of that value back to the farm.”

SoyLink members “will be raising certain genetics, providing traceable food ingredients to the food industry,” Sorenson says. FarmConnect research shows that could add a $1.50 premium per-bushel return over 10 years; marketing soybeans as food grade could add another $1.50.

U.S. soy-food sales top $3 billion a year and are increasing about 20 percent annually, according to FarmConnect figures.

Focus groups have shown “very positive feedback,” Sabolik says, with 50 percent of focus group farmers indicating they would invest $15,000 to $20,000 each. He says Farm Credit has agreed to finance 100 percent of a farmer’s investment.

SoyLink’s ingredients for soy beverages have been tested and analyzed by AURI food scientist Charan Wadhawan. The drinks scored a 60 percent acceptability among tasters, she says. AURI also helped SoyLink with business planning, says Sorenson, who managed AURI’s Crookston field office before joining FarmConnect.

FarmConnect’s venture has been aided by a “who’s who” of Minnesota agriculture, including the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, Minnesota Trade Office, Minnesota Wheat Growers Association and Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

For more information, visit FarmConnect’s Web site at www.farmconnect.com