One of the main things Mark Jirik, Director of the Northern Crops Institute (NCI) wants you to know is, “We are here!” For those who aren’t yet familiar with this organization, that is all soon to change. NCI was founded in 1979 to serve MN, MT, ND, and SD to promote, market, and develop opportunities for crops throughout the region. NCI has found its home on North Dakota State University’s (NDSU) campus since 1983 and has remained in the same building ever since.
A unique amalgamation of researchers, educators, scientists, and staff make up this diverse team, who assist with educational programming across the globe and technical services for value-added products. While NCI doesn’t buy or sell any products, they serve to provide technical programming to teach people how to use, buy, and identify quality crops, along with finding new applications for crops in the region.
There has been a transition over the past few decades in this region. Originally, NCI worked primarily with wheat and barley producers. However, as Jirik explains, the difficulties in farming in the 1980s and 1990s broadened the possibilities of this region and increased ingenuity. Crop production changed the landscape from primarily wheat and barley to even more diverse crops. “Now we see more crop varieties produced in the regions we serve, including pulse crops like chickpeas, dry beans, lentils, hemp, sunflowers, and ancient grains to name a few.”
NCI works with processors throughout the region on technical applications and product development for crops grown in the region, creating anything from breads, pasta, wine, pet food, pea proteins, and so much more. NCI’s expertise and data-driven approach sets them apart in making this region’s products shine based on their inherent qualities. With high-quality technology to help develop new applications, processes, and testing for new and improved ways of using crops, they directly support North Dakota/regional farmers and exporters.
Another benefit NCI provides is its programming to engage globally and educate people on the high-quality products coming out of this region. The institute offers classes on a wide variety of topics including pasta technology production, feed quality, grains and soybean procurement, ethanol procurement, and many more. They aim to educate on variations and differences to help importers and users from across the globe understand the products, quality, and other factors to consider when purchasing these crops. NCI does not specifically promote products from this region, but Jirik says, “The products we work with speak for themselves. Our team focuses on education and data to highlight what procurement workers should look for or be aware of when selecting products.” The team works closely with the North Dakota Wheat Commission and other similar organizations to bring international buyers to the region and provide awareness to tell the story of crops grown here.
This year is the fullest schedule NCI has ever seen, with more than 25 courses (both online and in-person), 3 conferences, on-demand materials, and several in-person sessions dedicated to importers, and practical and technical information for a host of crops from this area.
NCI’s course feedback shows 97% of participants report that they have a better understanding of US crop quality, and 56% have increased their volume purchased of US commodities as a result of these NCI courses. Both of these are excellent for not only the US economy, but much of the products they purchase are coming out of MN, MT, ND, and SD.
The Grain Procurement Management for Importers course in September is of particular excitement for the team. The program features a full eight-day immersive course for everything an international grain importer needs to know.
Some of NCI’s research, which just concluded its first year, has been looking into the quality of corn from this area, including its structure and durability as it ships internationally. Their findings, when corn from this region was compared to corn from Brazil and Argentina, showed US corn broke down more quickly in transit than the other countries’ corn. NCI took its analysis a step further and found although US corn structure was less durable in transit, the overall product took less electricity to mill. It was also more digestible to pigs and chickens, which was found through feeding trials in collaboration with South Dakota State University (SDSU) and Auburn University. “Even a seemingly weak point can be turned into a strength, and NCI, with our team of experts, is able to find applications that support each product to its fullest,” says Jirik. To expand upon this information, NCI and their partners will continue a second year of this project. Year two will be looking for the best ways to utilize the more digestible corn that adds value for producers and processors from the upper Midwest. This is just one of many examples that Jirik provided on how NCI is hosting many opportunities for increased awareness, programming, and product improvement all based on the crops from this region.
NCI is expanding exponentially and growing out of its current facility. They are excited to move into the Peltier Complex at NDSU, which is still under construction and expected to be completed in the spring of 2024. This new building brings about a host of opportunities and increased awareness for NCI. “The state of North Dakota, commodity groups, and many private donors and businesses have invested so much into this new facility. It is really a unique opportunity to highlight all the work that we have done and will continue to do for the region,” Jirik says, “NCI has always done a great job at bringing the world to North Dakota. With this new building, we embrace a huge challenge to be spotlighted even more, but that also means we have a huge opportunity.”
Collaboration continues to grow with the surrounding states, including the University of Minnesota, Montana State University, and South Dakota State University. “Each university has its area of expertise, and each state has a different focus area. NCI’s central location on the campus of NDSU allows them to form relationships with these universities, as well as other organizations in the region as a whole.”
With so much happening in the upper Midwest, it is not surprising that NCI is busier than ever. That means good things for the state of North Dakota and the surrounding states that benefit from this cutting-edge center. Agriculture is the backbone of each state’s economy and NCI does a great job adapting and promoting the crops of this region.