Research shapes the landscape and economy of Minnesota

by Tom Teigen

Jerry Demmer’s father was happy to harvest just over 50 bushels of corn per acre on his farm near Clarks Grove, Minn., in the early 1960s.[i] When Jerry took over the farm north of Albert Lea in 1972, he brought in around 105 bushels per acre. Last fall, Demmer’s corn yielded 166 bushels an acre. And it wasn’t a particularly good year. In 2012, Demmer’s cornfields yielded 195 bushels per acre.

Demmer, who chairs the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council, credits the University of Minnesota and others for advances in seed selection, fertilizer management, precision farming, and more, contributing to the bin-busting harvests. “My dad would be amazed at how much farming has changed. I’m amazed,” Demmer said. “I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

As a land grant university,[ii] “technology transfer” through agricultural research, education, and outreach has always been part of the University of Minnesota’s role. “They just didn’t call it that,” said Jay Schrankler, executive director of the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization.

The land Minnesota farmers and foresters own and work remains, after more than 150 years, some of the richest, most productive property in the world. In addition to the long, physically demanding labor that has gone into these fields and forests, academic research at the U of M and elsewhere has contributed to their success and Minnesota’s strong, diverse economy.

King Corn and more

Wheat was Minnesota’s principal crop 150 years ago, giving rise to companies like Pillsbury, General Mills, and Cargill. A statue of Norman Borlaug stands in the U.S. Capitol, a tribute to the University of Minnesota scientist and 1970 Nobel Laureate who developed high-yielding, disease resistant wheat strains that helped feed the world. U of M agronomists continue to be leaders in producing new hard red spring wheat varieties for growers in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, and Canada.

But at 3% of Minnesota’s $20.6 billion agriculture market, wheat isn’t king in rural Minnesota.[iii] Corn is. Nearly 32,000 Minnesota farmers planted 8.4 million acres of corn in 2007, according to a Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) economic analysis.[iv]

That wasn’t always the case. Prior to World War II, the nation’s Corn Belt was further south and east than it is today, according to Philip Pardey, director of the International Science & Technology Practice & Policy Center (InSTePP) at the University of Minnesota. When U of M agronomists began testing new seed varieties in the early 1900s, corn required 120 to 130 days to mature.

Between 1950 and 2000, however, the University released more than 100 “Minbreds” to commercial seed companies.[v] Maturity rates fell to between 80 and 90 days, Pardey said. And Minnesota yields increased from 40 bushels an acres in 1950 to 145 bushels in 2000, according the USDA.

Minnesota yields hit 165 bushels per acre in 2012. With more than one billion bushels harvested that year, Minnesota was the fourth leading corn producer in the nation. The total direct and indirect impact on Minnesota’s economy in 2007 exceeded $12 billion and accounted for 70,000 jobs, according to MDA.[vi]

Minnesota crop productivity
Minnesota crops by bushels harvested, 1866-2013.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service, Quick Stats

Soybeans, Minnesota’s second largest crop accounting, for 18% of the state’s agricultural economy, had a less auspicious beginning.[vii]  University agronomists weren’t optimistic when they began experimenting with soybean varieties from China and Korea in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Minnesota farmers showed little interest in the crop, planting less than 100,000 acres a year and harvesting a fraction of what they planted, according to USDA statistics.[viii]

Minnesota researchers kept working and farmers kept the faith. Acres planted began to increase in the 1940s as seed varieties improved. By the 1970s, the University had released 20 soybean varieties bred for the upper Midwest, and Minnesota farmers were planting more than 3 million acres of beans. Today, Minnesota is the third largest soybean producer in the nation, harvesting more than 300 million bushels in 2012.

“New technologies introduced over the years have allowed for changes in where we plant crops and when we plant crops,” Pardey said.   

The University continues to develop and release seed varieties through the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. But with seed science becoming increasingly high-tech and expensive, more development and commercialization is coming from the private sector, according to Schrankler.

More productive farms

Agricultural productivity in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 2% from 1949 to 1990, according to Pardey’s research.[ix]

Some of that productivity comes from changes in the structure of farming, with larger, more specialized farms benefiting from the economies of scale. And some of that productivity is the result of improved inputs, beyond seeds.

The width between corn rows has dropped from 40 inches or 42 inches, to a 30-inch standard, increasing yields simply by growing more stalks per acre. Now researchers are studying 20-inch rows. Soil management combined with plants that absorb nitrogen more efficiently has helped farmers reduce fertilizer use. Pest-resistant plants have reduced the need for insecticides.

With test fields across the state, the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) researchers evaluate hybrids for qualities including disease and insect resistance, root strength and stability, maturity dates, yield, and more.  Each year, the MAES releases crop variety trial reports to provide farmers with objective information on select seeds. The University also conducts research on specific challenges and offers fee-for-service support to farmers.

Farmers have always known that fields and sections of the same field could differ dramatically. These days, Demmer said, more farmers are using soil sampling and analysis, coupled with GPS technology, to make farming more precise, reducing fuel, seed, herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer expenses—and runoff into rivers and lakes.

“Genetics by environment,” selecting the right seeds for the conditions, and “farm infomatics,” using detailed, site-specific data, “has a lot of potential to optimize the use of inputs within farms and within individual fields and raise field-level output,” said Pardey.

But that has made farming more complex. Helping farmers and future farmers navigate the options of what to plant, how to plant, when to plant, how to manage the soil, the marketing, the business, represents another aspect of technology transfer.

“It’s really applied research,” said Brad Schloesser, dean of agriculture at the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture.

According to Schloesser, about half the students enrolled in agriculture programs across the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system are interested in “production agriculture.”

Other ag students in MnSCU are enrolled in service technician programs, where they prepare to work in farm support services, from seed sales to equipment maintenance and repair. “There has been a tremendous investment in new equipment over the last few years,” Schloesser said, “and there’s a huge shortage of people who can work on it.”

Schloesser recalled being in the field with a student enrolled in Farm Business Management, a program for working farmers, when the farmer couldn’t get the GPS to sync with the tractor. “The window of time to put the crop in the ground is really narrow. We can do it, thanks to all this technology,” Schloesser said. “But here was a case where the technology was holding up the process.”

From the forest

The U of M’s forestry program opened in 1903. At the time, the focus was on planting as many trees as possible, according to the MAES website. Over time, however, research demonstrated the benefits of managing the density of tree stands by thinning and planting a variety of trees.[x] 

Increasing yield by speeding up tree growth has been one focus of forestry R&D. The Natural Resources Research Institute, in conjunction with the Minnesota Forest Productivity Research Cooperative, developed of a poplar hybrid that may grow as tall as 50 to 60 feet in seven years. Preliminary results, according to NRRI, show cost reductions and yield gains of up to 80%.[xi]

Aspen is the most common tree in Minnesota forests, accounting for 61% of the tree cover, according to the DNR. [xii] Light and relatively weak, aspen is the primary feedstock for Minnesota’s paper mills but had limited use in construction. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the NRRI, which is part of the University of Minnesota Duluth, helped develop oriented strand board (OSB) as an alternative to plywood, according to Brian Brashaw, with the NRRI.  

Rather than sheets of veneer peeled from larger, old-growth timber and pressed together, OSB is made from smaller trees that are ground into thin strands and pressed into sheets with wax and adhesives. OSB’s popularity enabled Minnesota’s timber industry to play a much larger role in the nation’s building boom. The value of forest products manufactured in Minnesota increased more than fourfold to nearly $9 billion between 1980 and 2010, according to the Department of Natural Resources.[xiii]

With several window and door manufacturers located in Minnesota, the state, according the DNR, is second in the nation for window and door components.[xiv] But most of the lumber is shipped to Minnesota from the Pacific Northwest, according to Brashaw.

Recently, NRRI has been experimenting with a Finnish technology called thermo-modification. “Lightly roasting” wood in a special kiln, Brashaw explained, changes the chemistry and appearance. Aspen, for example, becomes much more dimensionally stable and less prone to rot. Now NRRI, working with a company in Brainerd, is finding new construction applications for aspen.

Brashaw hopes that additional R&D will lead to some applications of thermo-modified aspen in window and door construction. “That industry is still here,” Brashaw said. “Our hope is that with the right treatment and the right product application we can create an opportunity to supply those companies with more Minnesota lumber.”

Researchers, however, couldn’t save forestry from the pain caused by the collapse of the housing market, rock-bottom paper prices, and the 2012 fire that destroyed a paper mill in Sartell. But Brashaw knows the industry is cyclical and that R&D will create new markets for Minnesota’s forest products. “We will again face challenges in wood supply,” he said.


Increased interest in renewable energy represents a growing market for Minnesota’s forest and field products.

A strong agricultural base combined with tax incentives and production mandates dating back to the 1980s gave Minnesota a running start on renewable fuels.[xv]

In 2012, the state ranked fifth in the nation in ethanol production, according to MDA.[xvi] The state’s 21 ethanol plants, spread across southern Minnesota, produced more than a billion gallons of ethanol from corn produced by 11,000 Minnesota farmers. MDA estimates that ethanol production added more than $900 million to the value of Minnesota’s corn crop in 2011 and created more than 12,000 direct and indirect jobs.[xvii] Minnesota also has three biodiesel plants in Albert Lea, Brewster, and Isanti, capable of making 63 million gallons of fuel from soybeans and other feedstock.[xviii]

Funding for renewable energy R&D increased in 1999, when Xcel Energy, as part of earlier legislation allowing dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel, established a Renewable Development Fund (RDF) to support renewable energy. Since then the fund has awarded nearly $95 million in grants, according to Xcel.[xix]

In addition to individual projects, Xcel provided $5 million a year for the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). “Quickly we went from What could we do if we had the resources? to What should we do now?” said former IREE director Dick Hemmingsen.

From 2003 through 2012, IREE invested more than $40 million in research projects, leveraging an additional $120 million in funds, according to the IREE’s 2012 Annual Report.[xx] Legislatively directed funding for IREE ended in 2012, and the program shutdown.

“Public policies and funding have certainly played a big role in getting the attention of investors and helping [the industry] reach critical mass,” said Dale Wahlstrom, president and CEO of LifeScience Alley and the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota.

Research into bioenergy and bio-products accounted for half of the IREE grants, and a portion of RDF grants. But ethanol was well understood by this time, said former IREE director Dick Hemmingsen. “We were trying to strike a balance between feedstock choices and conversion technologies.” So scattered among the numerous grants for research into corn and soy-based biofuels and byproducts, were grants to explore alternative feedstocks like cold‐tolerant yellow‐green alga, cattails, and biomass torrefaction.

Torrefaction, or “overcooking the wood,” as NRRI’s Brashaw describes it, increases the fuel value of wood. The carbonized wood is similar to coal, and researchers are hoping that carbonized wood can be mixed with coal to reduce the demand for coal and create a new market for timber.

MN ethanol and biobutanol plants
Minnesota ethanol and biobutanol plants as of November 2013.
MN Department of Agriculture.

“Public perception of biofuels has waned with the emergence of debates about crops used for food versus fuel, land use, and other potential social and environmental impacts,” a 2013 report by Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Board stated. “In addition, cellulosic technology—while continuing to advance—is still not commercially viable or economically feasible at scale.”[xxi] Since 2008, the board has provided more than $5 million in grants to bioenergy projects around the state.[xxii]

Central Lakes College Agricultural and Energy Center in Brainerd received one of those grants to develop the concept of distributed energy. The center, which includes a working farm, raises dedicated non-food, energy crops, including pennycress, Camelina, Miscanthus, and prairie grasses, on marginal land where other crops won’t grow. “We have an abundance of that kind of land up here,” said Robert Schafer, program director. The center pays landowners modest fees to grow test crops.

Students and researchers, with support from area businesses, grow the feedstock, press the oils from the crops, process the oils using a portable bio-diesel plant, and use the fuel onsite. Now the center is reducing its biodiesel consumption by experimenting with straight vegetable oil to run the center’s tractors and heavy equipment. “We farm 900 acres, so we’re sort of a proving ground,” Schafer said. “We can put it to a farm-scale test.” 

Carbon, the “magical molecule”

From his perspective at LifeScience Alley and the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota, Wahlstrom believes that farmers and foresters should see themselves as carbon growers. “The fundamental concept is access to carbon, that magical molecule,” Wahlstrom said. “Burn it, you create energy. Eat it, you create energy. We’re harvesting carbon in one form or another.”

With global agricultural demand projected to increase 60% by 2050, Pardey warns that agricultural productivity increases have flattened out, and new commitments to R&D are needed.[xxiii]

Meanwhile, Teresa Spaeth, executive director of the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), predicts even more demand for bio-products and greater opportunities for Minnesota. Last year AURI, along with the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council and Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, commissioned a study to assess Minnesota’s strengths in agbiosciences and suggest strategies for innovation and economic growth. The report, Agbioscience as a Development Driver: Minnesota Agbioscience Strategy, released in November, identified four broad platforms on which to build, including value-added food, bio-based industrial products, microbial research, and “resilient, efficient and productive agricultural systems”.[xxiv]  (To read more about this study, click here.)

“We’re seeing a lot of activity that involves using existing technology in new ways,” Spaeth said. In the future, she expects ag-bioscience to involve research that connects multiple fields and disciplines, from microbiology and genomics to ecology and infectious diseases.”

Wahlstrom agrees. “The bio-business industry is in its infancy. Over the next 10 years, we are going to see huge increases in how we use carbon,” he said. “Those products and the land will become much more valuable.”

Back in Clarks Grove, Jerry Demmer is waiting for the soil to warm up before he gets in the field. He still has a spring planting season ahead of him. “But I envy the younger farmers in a way,” he said. “It’s exciting to think about what the future holds.”

— Tom Teigen is a freelance writer in St. Paul.

[i] United States Department of Agriculture. National Agriculture Statistics Service. Quick Stats: Minnesota corn yields. (Accessed April 2014.)

[ii] The Morrill Act of 1862 granted federally owned land to the states which could be sold to fund the establishment of colleges and universities that would “focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science and engineering,” preparing Americans to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. This kind of thinking contrasted with the traditional higher education curriculum that focused on a more abstract “classical education,” according to Wikipedia.

[iii] Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Minnesota Agricultural Profile. (Accessed April 2014.)

[v] University of Minnesota. Minnesota Agriculture Experiment Station: Corn. (Accessed March 2014.)

[vii] MDA. (2014.) Minnesota Agricultural Profile. (Accessed April 2014.)

[viii] United States Department of Agriculture. National Agriculture Statistics Service. Quick Stats: Minnesota soybeans: Area Planted/Area Harvested. (Accessed April 2014.)

[ix] Pardey, Philip G., and Alston, Julian M. For Want of a Nail: The Case for Increased Agricultural R&D Spending. (July 11, 2012.) Page 2. (Accessed April 2014.)

[x] University of Minnesota, Minnesota Agriculture Experiment Station. A Century of Research in Natural Resources: Management: Addressing Natural Resource Challenges Through Research. (Accessed April 2014.)

[xi] University of Minnesota Duluth, Natural Resources Research Institute. Hybrid Poplar Breeding Program. (Accessed March 2014.)

[xii] Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (June 2013.) Minnesota’s Forest Resources 2012. Page 26.

[xiii] Ibid. Page 5.

[xiv] Ibid. Page 5.

[xv] MDA. About the Minnesota Ethanol Program. (Accessed April 2014.) 

[xvii] Ibid. Page 7.

[xviii] MDA. Minnesota Biodiesel. (Accessed April 2014.)

[xix] Xcel Energy. Press Releases. (March 11, 2014.) Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund awards $42 million. (Accessed April 2014.)

[xx] University of Minnesota. Institute on the Environment. IREE 2012 Annual Report. Page 4.

[xxii] Ibid. Page 4.

[xxiii] Pardey, Philip G., and Alston, Julian M. For Want of a Nail: The Case for Increased Agricultural R&D Spending. (July 11, 2012.) Page 2. (Accessed April 2014.)

[xxiv] Battelle Technology Partnership Practice, for Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. (November 2013.) Agbioscience as a Development Driver: Minnesota Agbioscience Strategy. Page 4.