A troubled rural economy that spurred creation of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute 20 years ago differs from today’s troubles. But AURI’s key tool to help rev the economy is still innovation.
The 1980s was a difficult decade for American farmers. In the Midwest, thousands of families lost their homes and farms amid a serious farm crisis.
Low commodity prices, rapidly falling land values, overwhelming debt, an economic recession and a grain embargo prohibiting farm-commodity sales to the former Soviet Union, resulted in thousands of farm foreclosures and a dramatic change in the agricultural landscape.
Technology developed in prior decades led to rapid increases in farm productivity. According to the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service, in 1945 one acre of Minnesota farmland could produce about 39 bushels of corn. By 1985, that same acre produced about 115 bushels. The increased production, combined with difficult export markets, yielded crop surpluses and held prices down.
Minnesota leaders recognized something innovative needed to be done to strengthen rural Minnesota’s economy and to use the growing grain supplies. Discussions with commodity groups, farm organizations and legislative leaders resulted in 1987 legislation that created the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. Initially, AURI operated under the umbrella of the Greater Minnesota Corporation, which was designed to conduct applied research and generate business development in natural resources, manufacturing and agriculture.
A steering committee of AURI’s advisory board, representing ag-related organizations and businesses, led the program. In June 1989, AURI was incorporated as an independent nonprofit organization.
“There are two times when you have the inertia to seek change; one is when times are good and the other is when you can see the writing on the wall because your back is against it,” says Roger Moe, former Minnesota Senate majority leader and author of the Rural Economic Development Act of 1987, which created the GMC. Jerry Schoenfeld of Waseca authored AURI founding legislation in the House.
“If you look back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were having difficulty in the mining industry, timber fell apart and agriculture was having problems,” Moe says. “The difficulties we saw were natural-resource based.”
Founded on new uses
Moe says AURI was created because there had been too much focus on agricultural production and more emphasis was needed on developing ag-based products. AURI was designed to be nimble and flexible with the ability to partner, collaborate and access other resources.
“It was focused on ways to create new products to add value,” Moe says. “We over produced, so many commodities were underpriced,” says Gordon Sonstelie, an original AURI board member and former chair who represented the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association. “We had an abundance of ag products and needed to find new ways to use them.”
As AURI legislation stated its location must be near a college or university, four communities vied for its site: Crookston, Waseca, Morris and Marshall. After statewide meetings, numerous community presentations and sometime heated debate, AURI’s steering committee decided the institute would best serve the state in four locations. Crookston was selected for the headquarters while field offices were opened in Marshall, Morris and Waseca.
“I’ll admit that I lobbied to have it here (in Crookston),” Moe says. “But spreading the organization around the state has had value.”
Linking research to business
Minnesota has long been home to top notch agricultural research institutions, including the University of Minnesota. The state’s land grant university has developed copious amounts of research on agricultural production. When AURI was formed, however, some ag leaders wanted a stronger link between research and commerce.
Bob Bergland, former United States Secretary of Agriculture, is also a past member of the AURI board and University of Minnesota board of regents. “The University of Minnesota is a world-class research university, but technology transfer was a barrier,” Bergland says. “AURI came along to take that research and test it commercially. It was a tremendous idea — still is.”
“There was a missing link between the research that was being done and how to put it to use,” adds Edgar Olson, who served in the Minnesota House of Representatives when AURI was created and was later named AURI’s executive director. “There was a need for someone to help put people in a sound position to go into business using the technologies and ideas that were being generated.”
“We were given a statute and told to go do it, but there really wasn’t much of a template to follow,” says Al Christopherson, AURI board chair and former Minnesota Farm Bureau president. “We did a lot by trial and error.”
Changing with the economy
As with most organizations that have been around for 20 years, AURI has gone through growing pains and adaptations. Programs and services have changed to match the state’s needs and react to emerging opportunities. AURI’s work has been shaped by record fuel prices, record crop prices, a struggling economy, an explosive growth in the renewable energy industry and state and federal policies.
“What has never changed is our commitment to providing the best scientific, technical expertise and targeted network coordination to add value and long-term economic vitality to Minnesota,” says Teresa Spaeth, AURI executive director.
“We work very hard to be creative, collaborative, innovative and to look at things that haven’t been done before.”
Even though times and AURI have changed since 1989, the need for developing innovative uses and market opportunities for Minnesota grown agricultural commodities has not.
“If there was a reason to create this organization 20 years ago,” says Moe, “there is even more of a reason for it now, given the times we have.”