This quarter, Ag Innovation News is highlighting Larry Johnson. When we last spoke to Johnson in April of 2017, he was just getting settled into his new role as a Director. This time around we will delve into what he’s learned from his experiences so far and the role he plays on AURI’s Board of Directors.

AIN: Ethanol is often considered one of the original “value-added products,” what is its current impact on the value added ag sector?

LJ: Ethanol production is certainly a historic benchmark in our agricultural history. Not only did it increase the price of corn but it encouraged tens of thousands of farmers to invest in value added processing and receive annual dividends. Because ethanol production is a relatively simple first step into value-added processing, it has provided the foundation for new technologies and processes. Ethanol plants are now producing new feed and food products, not only from starch and sugars but also from the cellulosic parts of the crop that previously had little or no value.

AIN: What opportunities do you see for AURI?

LJ: It’s still early in the development of technology for modifying yeast and enzyme capabilities to create new products from our food and fiber, but changes and innovations are fast approaching. New processes will enable the production of better, cleaner, and more efficient industrial and consumer products.

AIN: What are some of the more exciting developments you’ve seen?

LJ: Certainly one of the most successful is Smude’s Sunflower Oil, founded by Tom and Jenni Smude of Pierz, MN. They evolved from raising sunflowers as a crop diversification idea into processing the seeds into dipping and cooking oils as well as oil for clean label microwave popcorn. Now they’re AURI’s Ag Innovator of the Year for 2018!

Also, AURI participated with Food Ag Ideas week in October and along with the Larta Institute and MyFormulary, sponsored a forum titled “The Nexus of Food & Health.” This event brought together an amazing group of experts and businesses featuring the role that food can play in our health and well-being. New knowledge and innovation in food products are emerging as enjoyable and effective replacements for expensive medications and
health care.

There are also many creative individuals and startup companies developing new and unique food products. Products such as functional foods, ethnic foods, specialty proteins, energy bars, honey products, plant-based yogurts as well as craft brewers and distilleries. Many of these entities come to AURI for its expertise as they advance from their kitchen to commercial production.

AIN: Can you share any recent innovations in other areas of AURI’s work (i.e. coproducts, bio-based products, renewable energy)?

LJ: AURI is involved with a variety of industrial hemp farmers and supporters as hemp acreage is increasing and attracting interest in its potential for food, oil, fiber and industrial uses. If the latest Farm Bill retains its current language legalizing industrial hemp as a farm crop, both production and usage are expected to increase rapidly.

AIN: You’ve now been a board member for two years—what are some of the highlights from your time on the board?

LJ: I have been very surprised by the volume of clients and requests for assistance that come in to AURI. So a highlight would be just the amount and variety of projects we see and the capabilities of the AURI staff to assist them. We have also completed the first two “New Uses Forums” in 2017 and 2018 that have been very successful. The theme of this past forum was “Adding Value at the Speed of Innovation” which describes the accelerating pace at which technology is increasing the value of our agricultural production. It is exciting to see the innovation that entrepreneurs are bringing to food, feed, energy and new consumer products

AIN: During the next year, do you have any goals you hope to achieve?

LJ: My personal goal is to provide AURI with the best support and decisions possible to help maximize its impact on Minnesota agriculture. It is a two-way street, as I am able to assist AURI with my experience, knowledge and contacts from years in the ethanol industry and AURI keeps me current with some of the latest technology in agricultural processing and new products. There are also great strides to be made in the development of new protein sources for both animal feed and human nutrition to supply the growing worldwide demand. These are both goals and challenges. It is certainly exciting, and I feel it’s a great opportunity just to be a part of it.