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University of Minnesota out to create new era of ag research

The University of Minnesota is leading the $220 million project called the Future of Advanced Agricultural Research in Minnesota or FAARM. The FAARM site is planned to be in Mower County, in conjunction with Riverland Community College at Austin.

Brian Buhr in a suit
Brian Buhr, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
Courtesy / University of Minnesota
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AUSTIN, Minn. — Improving health from the ground up — that’s the goal of a futuristic project centered in southeast Minnesota.

The project, being led by the University of Minnesota, is being called FAARM — Future of Advanced Agricultural Research in Minnesota .

Brian Buhr , dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences , says it isn’t just about ag and it isn’t just about Minnesota.

“What we’re constructing is a one-health concept,” Buhr said. “Really trying to integrate soil health with plant health, animal health and human health.”

The FAARM is planned to be in Mower County, in conjunction with Riverland Community College at Austin, which has ag programs of its own.

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But also in Austin is the Hormel Institute that partners with the University of Minnesota on cancer research.

“We work with them on horticultural crops, primarily, and the influence on cancer prevention,” Buhr said.

Doing whole health research across a broad range of grains and livestock won’t be cheap. The project is projected to cost $220 million. The FAARM project has gotten a big boost from the Hormel Foundation with a $60 million investment.

"The Hormel Foundation is excited to be partnering with the University of Minnesota in its quest to build a new agriculture research and education center in the Austin area,” Jeff Ettinger, chairman of The Hormel Foundation Board, said in a news release.

The Minnesota Legislature is being asked this session to also approve $60 million for FAARM.

In return on that investment, in addition the research benefits, the project is expected to eventually employ 72 workers full time and have an economic impact of $33 million annually on the Austin area.

“It will have a huge economic impact for the region,” Buhr said.

Aligning many components

The research will be comprehensive but also starting small, looking at things like microbiomes and pathogens, constantly collecting data with remote sensors, and looking at details such as manure management and its effect on different soils and how it ultimately affects human health.

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Buhr said they looked at ag research complexes from coast-to-coast as part of their feasibility study.

“We really don’t see that anywhere else,” Buhr said of the one-health concept. “There’s components, they’re not necessarily aligned.”

Realigning research

The comprehensive look will also mean bringing in some University of Minnesota research that is currently spread across 10 sites in the state.

For example, the U of M will close some aging animal research facilities at its St. Paul campus and instead use new facilities at the FAARM.

He said there will still be livestock at the St. Paul campus, but primarily as a teaching tool for the students there.

He also said there is crop production research that is unique to various sites such as Crookston, Morris and Lamberton that needs to be maintained.

“We have data on those sites typically for about 100 years,” Buhr said. “You can’t replace that.”

But those sites might not keep doing everything they are currently doing.

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“We’re looking at, what do we need that is unique to those sites?” Buhr said, but on the flip side, “what don’t we need there?”

Project timeline

But a move to the FAARM is still a ways off.

The $60 million from the Hormel Foundation and $60 million as part of the university’s budget are big pieces, but Buhr said there are discussions going on with other potential private investors, both in ag and in other areas, such as nutrition.

And of course there’s also designing and building the complex. Buhr said land acquisition is still in process and even how much land is needed hasn’t been pinned down. The current range is 800 to 1,600 acres.

Buhr said people shouldn’t expect the Mower County facility to be one contiguous site — different livestock operations will need some distance from each other, for example — but will be close enough together to be able to share some equipment and labor.

“This helps us to more efficiently operate and manage as well,” Burh said.

He said predesign work, such as what all needs to be included in a dairy facility, will begin this summer. After that is completed, it might be another five years for the site to be up and running and will likely evolve in stages.

On the livestock side, he said, dairy and turkeys would likely be first, while beef and hogs would come later. In part, that is because swine buildings at Waseca and Morris still have a good seven to 10 years of use in them, Buhr said.

The site is even planned to have bioenergy generators in the future.

Location and partners

While being in the hometown of Hormel, the Austin location offers other advantages, Buhr said.

He said there is a wide variety of soil types in Mower County, helpful in evaluating different practices.

But he also said being near the intersection of Interstate 35 and Interstate 90 is an advantage in bringing in partners, such as neighbors in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Buhr also expressed appreciation for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system that includes Riverland. Adenuga Atewologun, president of Riverland Community College, welcomed the project.

“Riverland serves a key role preparing the region’s farmers to be successful, and I look forward to partnering with the University of Minnesota for the future benefit of the citizens and farmers of our region,” Atewologun said in an emailed statement.

Regional partners ”can advance research more quickly and more broadly,” Buhr said.

For that reason, he wants to deemphasize the Minnesota "M" in FAARM.

“We’re looking at it as an investment in research and education for agriculture in Minnesota and the region,” Buhr said.

Related Topics: MINNESOTAAGRICULTURE EDUCATIONHEALTHAGRICULTURE RESEARCH
Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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