By Connie Sieh Groop
Special to the Farm Forum
Great minds are pursuing innovative ways to use farm products. Value-added products are important to the future of the industry. Some items start out with limited appeal and are embraced by the public
At Farmfest in Minnesota, I met with Erik Evans, with the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, who said there is a lot of exciting developments moving forward in Minnesota. The mission of the Institute is to foster long-term economic benefit for Minnesota through value-added agricultural products. The group does a of research to encourage value- added ag projects. He said the research is available to the public and is free. As an example, they recently finalized reports on alternative protein sources, using items such as pea protein and hemp protein. Much of the research can be used in other states as well. They document the areas that are challenges as well as what areas offer excellent opportunities.
“We work with individual entrepreneurs, businesses, cooperatives, commodity groups and farm organizations that have ideas for new uses to benefit Minnesota producers,” Evans said. “While we are an independent nonprofit corporation, AURI is funded, in part by the Minnesota Legislature. In addition, AURI receives funding from project fees and charitable gifts made by individuals and companies. We provide a wide range of services from new product development and feasibility assistance to assessing business and marketing needs. Our work focuses on four core areas: food, renewable energy, biobased products, and coproducts.”
One of the tents at FarmFest showcased products and businesses developed from working with AURI.
A healthy sweet treat showcased high oleic soybean oil. The oil is used to make shortening called Plenish. Frosting made from the oil tasted delicious when topping sweet crackers. It is high in omega fatty acids and supports local Minnesota soybean growers. Large scale wholesalers such as Cisco use it now but it is not available in retail outlets. In addition to the frosting, tests have been run at research centers using the oil.
One of the researchers said that when used to make French fries, the fries were crisper, the oil lasted longer, and they were better tasting. Growth of the high oleic plants is limited because the processing plants are now located in Indiana and Illinois. There are plans to build a processing facility in Minnesota which can process the specialty soybeans from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota in the future. Acreage is expected to more than double.
Jenny Smude said the family started Smude’s with the intent of crushing sunflowers for meal. They eventually found there was increased value with flavored premium cold pressed sunflower oil. They use only high oleic sunflower seeds to provide a healthy cooking oil with 0 trans-fat, high in “good” monounsaturated fat, and low in polyunsaturated fat. Smude credits AURI with helping the family through the process. Demand has caused them to expand from Pierz, Minn. to Breckenridge, Minn. They raise the sunflowers and press them on their farm.
With a laugh, Smude said, “We grew too fast. Now we press the oil and take it in totes to another location where we bottle it. We now have multiple locations for making oil.”
Most microwave popcorn has wax, and so they developed a product without the wax that is better eating without altering the flavor. Their packaged microwave popcorn only has sunflower oil, popcorn and salt.
Other products in the tent offered spreads there were nut-free alternatives to peanut butter and Nutella for those bothered with allergies. Kay’s Naturals are high protein, low glycemic index snacks for dietary management with a focus on flavor.
Innovation can lead to extending life of roadways by using RePLAY soy-based road sealant. The bio-based products are flexible and save money from not having to chip seal the surfaces. There are no toxins leaching into the soil. That benefits Minnesota and the world.
George Coy of Clean Plus Industries of West Concord, Minn., explained their products take left-over corn stover and make it into useable products for the automotive, agricultural and industrial markets. Some of the major airports use their mess-absorbing product to clean up petroleum spills.
He said, “Our product uses under-utilized bio-degradable, carbon neutral crop residue to create a very efficient commodity used in industry and shops. It is environmentally responsible in terms of disposal. Instead of throwing the manufactured product on floors, users can use a renewable source which is part of the corn plant. Lignin is a natural glue which attracts hydrocarbons (the main components of petroleum and natural gas) and then traps them within the cell wall, making it ideal for cleaning up oily spills. It is six times more efficient, and 40 percent less expensive to use. Society gets more efficiency, and it adds another layer of income to farmers.”
Coy said farmers can get $50 an acre to sell the stover to a processing plant. It works well. AURI helped with developing and testing it. It is patented so it is protected from others trying to do the same things.
“The downside to it is that no one tried to use the corn stover for this process,” Coy said. “All the equipment had to be built from the ground up. Along with product development, we provided the engineering. We partnered with researchers at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute to figure out some of the processes.”
Treats offered in the Minnesota Corn Growers tent offered another use for corn products. The cookies shared with those at Farmfest by South Dakota State University Professor Padu Krishnan and students from the Department of Dairy and Food Science tasted great with a surprise twist. Dried distillers’ grain, a byproduct of ethanol is among the ingredients.
Krishnan, “People love the cookies and like the idea of using dried distillers’ grain. It’s a lot of win-win. The cookies are made in the SDSU lab and are shelf stable. I make a ton of them and freeze them. I add some almond extract. With five percent DDG, it has higher protein and higher fiber. That is good for people. People eat cookies for the pure joy of it. We can eat these cookies without the guilt.”
Currently the industry is only using two-thirds of DDGs for animal feed. “If we can use some of the feed to provide food for people, it’s good. Currently, the cost for DDG is $95 per ton. People in the U.S. need fiber. Other things we consume hurt us. Remember an ounce of prevention will help stave off disease. By adding more fiber to the diet and living healthy, it’s a better solution than trying to fix health issues once you are unhealthy.”
Krishnan said he tried adding 20 percent DDGs but some could taste a difference so he decided to stick with this level. Afterall, it’s not about the cookie but the ingredient.
The Minnesota Corn Growers help push the process by providing funding for his research. Krishnan said consumers need to pull the product forward with the use of the product to create market demand.
Some of the value-added products may interest a small group while others will have a wider scope. Those who are moving these ideas forward are pioneers impacting the future of agriculture.