The University of Minnesota is buying nearly 750 acres of land in Mower County as it moves forward with plans to create a new complex for agricultural and climate change research and teaching.
The $10.3 million purchase will give the university about half the land it hopes to acquire for the new Future of Advanced Agricultural Research Minnesota (FAARM) center. The complex will be located in Udolpho Township, about 20 minutes outside the city of Austin.
University administrators hope the new center will allow researchers to build more sustainable farming techniques to adapt to climate change while feeding a growing population.
In a public meeting Friday, Regent Doug Huebsch said the new center will be "probably the biggest thing in agriculture to happen since I've been born."
"It's going to be vital to the future of this state, in terms of doing things right on farms and taking this to the next level," he said.
The university's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences has 10 research and outreach centers across the state, but administrators say many of them are in poor condition and becoming increasingly expensive to operate.
Brian Buhr, dean of the college, said the new complex will allow researchers to use more advanced technology to monitor changes in soil, crops and livestock, and the ways they're interconnected. For example, remote sensors will allow them to gather temperature and soil quality data where crops are planted, while trackers akin to an Apple Watch or Fitbit will allow them to monitor heart rate and other metrics for livestock.
"What you feed animals turns into plant nutrients [through] manure, comes back into animals, and we can start to see the dynamics of those changes," Buhr said. Ultimately, he added, that all impacts human health as well.
"We can understand those linkages now," Buhr said.
Regents approved the purchases in a meeting Friday morning. Last month, regents voted to pay $1 million to buy 80 acres of land in the same area. Leslie Krueger, the university's assistant vice president for planning, space and real estate, told regents the U is in "active negotiations" for another 500-plus acres of land, as it works toward it goals of buying 1,200 to 1,600 acres to support the complex.
The total estimated cost for the project is roughly $220 million. The university is handling the land purchases and expects to cover other costs as well. It is partnering with Riverland Community College, which is using a $60 million donation from the Hormel Foundation to cover some of the design work. The group is also seeking $60 million from state lawmakers and looking for other partners as well.
Buhr said the group hopes to begin construction in 2026. He said they hope to open the complex to members of the public who want to learn more about farming and their food supply, and to use the site for teaching college and university students seeking degrees ranging from associates to doctorates.
Buhr said the university intends to continue to maintain a presence at its other research and outreach stations, in part so that it can continue to gather climate metrics it has been tracking for more than a century. But as facilities at those locations age, the university will look at whether some of those buildings could be decommissioned and whether portions of the work could be done at the FAARM complex.